The Saint John’s Bible in Minnesota: A Spiritual & Artistic Treasure

In Collegeville, Minnesota, visit The Saint John’s Bible, one of the most remarkable books to be created in many centuries.

Saint John's Bible in Minnesota
Pages from The Saint John’s Bible can be seen in a gallery on the campus of Saint John’s University in Minnesota. (photo by Bob Sessions)

 

In Minnesota, Saint John’s University is home to the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in five centuries: The Saint John’s Bible, which has been called a Sistine Chapel of the Book Arts. Commissioned in 1998 and completed in 2011, it brilliantly blends ancient and modern traditions.

I was thrilled to get the chance to see this magnificent work of art in person. (And during my visit I discovered that Saint John’s has other spiritual treasures as well: click these links for more information on the Saint John’s Abbey Church, Saint John’s Pottery Studio, and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.)

My visit started at the Alcuin Library, the home of The Saint John’s Bible. Because I’m writing a book about spirituality and the arts, I was fortunate to have a personal tour with Tim Ternes, the director of The Saint John’s Bible.

Tim began by giving me an introduction to the abbey and university that commissioned the Bible. Saint John’s Abbey was founded in rural Minnesota in 1856 by Benedictine monks originally from Bavaria, who in the following year established an institute of higher education for men. A neighboring women’s college, Saint Benedict’s, was founded in 1913 by Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict. The two colleges (which are about an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis) are now a collaborative institution known as the College of Saint Benedict + Saint John’s University. On campuses that encompass more than 3,000 acres of forest, prairie, wetlands, and lakes, the colleges enroll about 3,300 students.

Tim described how student life here is intertwined with the medieval rhythms of Saint John’s Abbey, whose monks gather several times a day for mass and the prayer services known as the Liturgy of the Hours. With more than a hundred monks, the abbey is one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the Western Hemisphere.

“Our campus is a counter-cultural world that mixes young adults with a 1,500-year-old tradition,” he said. “As students go between classes, they hear the calls to prayer from the abbey church in the middle of campus. Saint John’s is bustling with students and visitors, but at its heart is the calming, steady beat of monastic tradition.”

Sacred Artistry

We next headed down the stairs to The Saint John’s Bible Gallery, where I met two student interns who are associated with the project, Claire Kouri and Mark Spangler. “Claire and Mark lead many of the tours here,” Tim said. “People can visit the gallery on their own, but our free tours are a great way for people to engage more fully with the Bible.”

As we stepped into the gallery, my first impression was that it seemed like a kind of chapel, with subdued lighting that accentuated the beauty of the twenty-eight folios (a term describing a spread of two pages) that are displayed. While the pages of The Saint John’s Bible will eventually be bound into seven volumes, at present it remains unbound for ease of display and so that the pages can tour around the world. Because the folios are regularly rotated in the gallery, visitors can return again and again to see new parts of the Bible.

John Frontispiece, Donald Jackson, ©2002 The Saint John’s Bible

I’d known the dimensions of the Bible before arriving, but it was a different thing to stand in front of its oversized pages. The sheer scale is astounding: each two-page spread measures two feet by three feet when opened.

“This isn’t a personal Bible like we’re used to,” explained Tim. “It is by its very nature communal. It was created by many people, and it is an invitation for many people to come together and create meaning as they use it for visual and spiritual meditation.”

Part of how this happens, I learned, is that Bible’s handwritten script forces people to slow down as they read, encouraging a kind of lectio divina (a form of contemplative reading of scripture). In the gallery, each of the folios also has a set of questions beneath them, inviting visitors to engage with the themes of the text.

“One of the rewarding things about being a guide here is interacting with people and hearing their comments about the Bible,” said Claire Kouri. “I think the first reaction is often astonishment. They’ve never seen a book like this. We encourage them to take their time here, to study the pages closely and engage with both the words and images.”

As I toured the gallery, I learned that The Saint John’s Bible was created by a team of artists working in Wales under the leadership of Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost Western calligraphers. The translation is the New Revised Standard Version, which was chosen because it is used by many denominations.

Over thirteen years, these modern-day scribes and illuminators worked closely with a group of theologians and other scholars at Saint John’s, who helped them decide which scripture passages to highlight and how to fine-tune the illuminations. Funding for the project came from more than 1400 donors from across the world.

The Saint John’s Bible shares many characteristics with medieval Bibles, though with some help from modern technology. Computers were used to create the initial layout of the text, which helped in figuring out the overall design and where illuminations would be placed.

Once that outline was set, the rest of its creation would be largely familiar to a tenth-century scribe. The Bible’s 1,127 pages are of calfskin vellum, the highest quality of parchment, with writing done by pens made from turkey, goose and swan quills using handmade inks and pigments. Its illuminations were created with the opaque watercolor known as gouache and also with casein, a milk-based, water-soluble paint. The gilding—an illuminated manuscript’s sine qua non—is in gold, silver, and platinum (the term illuminated manuscript comes from the Latin illuminare, which means “lighted up.”)

 

Genealogy of Jesus, Donald Jackson, ©2002 The Saint John’s Bible

An Illuminated Manuscript for a Modern Age

Though The Saint John’s Bible is deeply influenced by illuminated manuscripts of the past, its artwork includes contemporary themes, elements, and artistic styles.

Take the illumination at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, for example (see above). The genealogy of Jesus comes to life as a blend of a tree of life and a Jewish menorah. The circle at its base recalls a mandala, a common image across many religions and a reminder of the universality of the spiritual quest. The intricate gold medallions above the menorah echo illuminations from the Qur’an, while the DNA double helixes between the branches of the menorah emphasize the connectedness of all humanity and the advances of scientific knowledge. The ancestral names on the page include those of Abraham and Sarah (which are written in English and Hebrew) and Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden and the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad (her name is written in Arabic, Hebrew and English).

I continued my slow circuit around the gallery, examining each of the folios with the help of my guides. At one point Mark Spangler asked if I could see a mistake in the page before me. I scanned it closely and finally gave up. “There, at the bottom,” he said, pointing out how a line that had been inadvertently left out was connected to its proper location by an elegant arrow. “Instead of re-doing the entire page, they showed how medieval scribes corrected their work.”

Display cases give information on how The Saint John’s Bible was created. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Display cases around the sides of the room gave additional details about the creation of the book and the history of illuminated manuscripts. Included were tools ranging from ink sticks and quill pens to information on how the paint colors came from sources such as ground lapis (for blues) and malachite (for greens).

An exhibit on the illumination process described how a layer of extremely thin, 24-karat gold was carefully placed on areas that had been painted with an adhesive called gesso, followed by smoothing, burnishing, and trimming to the exact shape needed.

Finally, I ended my time in the gallery by browsing an electronic version of the Bible, making it possible to pore over individual pages magnified on a large display screen.

I left the gallery feeling inspired and a little overwhelmed by all that I had seen. The Saint John’s Bible is indeed a communal wellspring of inspiration.

“The Saint John’s Bible is meant to engage the spiritual imagination of those who see it,” explained Tim Ternes. “We want people to interact with it, to question it, to ponder it visually and spiritually, and to reflect on how this book has shaped the world.”

To see The Saint John’s Bible for yourself, you can browse its website, tour the Saint John’s Bible Gallery at Saint John’s University, or find a location near you that has a Heritage Edition (a fine-art, limited edition that is very close to the original).


Continue your visit at Saint John’s by seeing:

 

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

 

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