Susan Sink is a poet and writer, and her most recent book, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide explores the art and theology behind The Saint John’s Bible, a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible by calligrapher Donald Jackson.
Susan was a residential scholar at the Collegeville Institute in 2005/06, and participated in summer writing workshops in 2006 and 2012. In addition to The Art of the Saint John’s Bible, Susan has written a book of poems, The Way of All the Earth, and a book of 100-word stories, Habits. She is the administrator of the Episcopal House of Prayer, and lives on an 80-acre farm in St. Joseph, MN. She blogs at http://susansink.wordpress.com.
In Part One of this interview, Elisabeth Kvernen ask Susan about the background, purpose, and approach of her book, The Art of the Saint John’s Bible.
Tell us how you were first acquainted with The Saint John’s Bible.
When I came to the Collegeville Institute as a resident scholar in 2005, I had only recently learned of The Saint John’s Bible. A friend had told me about it months earlier when I mentioned that I would be going to Collegeville. During my year at the Collegeville Institute I learned a lot more—going to see the exhibit of pages from the Bible, and participating in a visio divina session with the illumination “Life of Paul,” (see image, right) led by a Benedictine monk at Saint John’s, Michael Patella. The following year I saw my first slide show and presentation on the Bible by Tim Ternes.
How did you come to write a reader’s guide to the art of The Saint John’s Bible?
I got a full-time job with Liturgical Press at the end of my stay at the Collegeville Institute. I was there maybe two weeks when the director, Peter Dwyer, came down to my office. He said that as the exhibit of pages from the Gospels and Acts, Psalms, and Pentateuch had been traveling, people had been asking for a book to tell them a little more about what they were looking at. He asked if I’d be interested in writing that book. Of course I jumped at the chance.
What is the purpose of the guide?
The guide is not meant to be an interpretation of the images in The Saint John’s Bible. It is meant to offer context in terms of the art and the theology behind the passage being illuminated. I started with questions I think most people have when they go to see an exhibit of illuminations, or are flipping through the reproduction books. “Why did they decide to illuminate this passage?” “Why is this passage significant?” “What themes are they highlighting here?” “What tools or techniques went into making this image?” Additionally, I thought it would be nice to open and close each entry with a question that invites people into deeper contemplation of the illuminations.
You describe the process of writing your book as visio divina. Could you describe this process, and how you used it to approach The Saint John’s Bible? Is this what you hope your readers will experience as they approach the illuminations?
The process became more and more one of visio divina as the writing progressed. There were a lot of materials already available about the three volumes of The Saint John’s Bible that had already come out in reproduction, and were featured in the touring exhibit. People had written entries for the museum exhibit. Christopher Calderhead’s book Seeing the Word was also available. I also did some research on illuminated manuscripts in general. But in the end I sat with the scripture passage first, then looked at the illumination, and tried to draw connections between the two. I checked my “reading” of the images with both Michael Patella and Donald Jackson, once I had a draft. With the later volumes—Prophets, Wisdom Books, Historical Books, and Letters and Revelation—I was sometimes just given the reproduction volume or even a plastic binder with small images of the pages, and there wasn’t much else! I went to commentaries and spent a lot more time with the scripture texts and earlier volumes of The Saint John’s Bible. I have to say, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout this process.
What do you find most compelling about The Saint John’s Bible?
How people respond to it. I enjoy giving talks about The Saint John’s Bible, and I can see people responding, sometimes in very personal ways, to the images as works of liturgical art. There is nothing like seeing the actual pages, where the gold leaf seems to lift from the page and the work is delicate and crisp. However, now there are over 100 Heritage Editions out there, and those are amazing works of art in their own right. Saint John’s offers a program called “A Year With The Saint John’s Bible” which encourages communities to experience a Heritage Edition first hand. Looking at the Heritage Edition volumes has been a great experience for people.
I have always loved the Bible, and I have always loved art. Bringing them together in this way continually engages me. Writing the books brought together a number of my passions: scripture, art, and teaching. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to do this project!
More images from The Saint John’s Bible (click on the image to view it at a larger size):
Next week we will post Part Two of this interview, where Susan shares about the script, design elements and recurring themes and motifs used in The Saint John’s Bible, and how it has been used for worship.
To find out more about The Saint John’s Bible, visit http://www.saintjohnsbible.org.
All images are used with permission, courtesy of The Saint John’s Bible.