This week we continue our interview with Susan Sink, author of The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide (check out Part One). In Part Two Susan spoke with Elisabeth Kvernen about the script, design elements and recurring themes and motifs used in The Saint John’s Bible, and how the Bible has been used for worship.
Can you tell us about the script used for the text of the Bible? What decisions went into the choice of this particular textual style?
The script (see image, below; click on the image to see details) was created by Donald Jackson. There were a number of constraints. He wanted it to be contemporary and easy to read. That meant it had to be legible even when it was reduced for the reproduction books. It had to be something that the scribes could learn to imitate without too much trouble, and reproduce with consistency from scribe to scribe. It all had to look the same. But Donald Jackson also wanted it to have gravitas. It was the Bible, after all, and it should have a serious script.
Donald Jackson said one of the highest compliments came from Hebrew scribes who saw the script on the page. It meant a lot to him that they admired the script. Today, one of the few instances in which people still write with these tools on calfskin vellum is when Jewish scribes write Torah. They are in a position to know what goes into such an accomplishment.
Many people are especially taken with the illuminations. But for Donald Jackson, the text is primary. He is a calligrapher. He invented this script. When he was presenting the pages to Saint John’s Committee on Illumination and Text, which was in one sense the appointed patron of the The Saint John’s Bible, he would sometimes stop just to make sure they appreciated the beauty of a page of script without any illuminations.
What design elements characterize the illustrations of The Saint John’s Bible?
Donald Jackson was very tactile. The illuminations are layered, and he used a lot of tools. He and his collaborators used stamps, which show up repeatedly in the illuminations, and which he made from manipulating images on the computer—a wing, an arched doorway at the church at Compostela, an image of a fish from the shrine at Tabgha, Israel. He used textiles in various ways, even dipping lace into ink and pressing it onto the page. As he worked, he drew from multiple styles of liturgical art. He collaborated with Aiden Hart, an iconographer who painted some of the faces of biblical characters in an icon style (see “Life in Community”, below).
What recurring themes and motifs are repeated throughout the Bible?
The most obvious motif is gold. Gold leaf is used throughout The Saint John’s Bible to mark the presence of the divine. Even in the darkest days of Israel’s exile, you find bars of gold to show God is still there. I also love the use of the shaft of gold in the nativity (see image, left). The artists didn’t want portray a baby in a manger, but rather to emphasize that Jesus is the revelation of God on earth. The focus is on the divine nature revealed in a humble, earthly community and setting. I think it’s a wonderful mix of elements.
In Wisdom Books, which emphasizes the concept of wisdom and the feminine nature of God, silver (platinum) is used to show the presence of wisdom (see image, right). And in Prophets, Jackson introduced the rainbow as a motif (see below, left). I think in part it was to break through the darkness of a lot of those visions, but also to draw attention to them as visions. You can’t look at the vision of Solomon’s temple without recognizing it as vision, not reality. Beyond that, it is a powerful symbol of God’s promise to the people from Noah forward. There is still a covenant. Without a temple or a homeland, they can still see the covenant in the sky.
The Saint John’s Bible also emphasizes three primary themes throughout all seven volumes. All are important themes to the Benedictines: 1) transformation of life, or conversatio; 2) hospitality; 3) justice for God’s people. Wherever these themes are present in the scriptures, they are highlighted by illuminations as well. I especially appreciate the emphasis on justice for the poor, and all the places God’s call to love the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan, is writ large.
You write in your book that flora and fauna from the Minnesota landscape can be found in the illuminations of the Bible. Why did the artists decide to incorporate these local elements into the design?
These elements are decorative (except maybe for the monarch butterflies at the end of Mark’s Gospel—see image, right). There is a long tradition of scribes doodling in the margins of illuminated manuscripts and incorporating images of the world outside the monastery, or their patron’s image, or even their own! Chris Tomlin, one of the artists, is an incredibly gifted nature illustrator. At first I think it was assumed that his work would add another beautiful element to the page. The first volume, Gospels and Acts, includes a lot of marginal images. Later, in Historical Books, the artists used images of insects and other creatures, and not just from Minnesota, engaged in battle with each other. It was a way to show how the warring humans in the books reflected warring throughout the natural world. There’s a ruthlessness to those stories that was given both a bit of distance, and cosmic depth, by showing insects pulling each other to pieces instead of people. (see image, above left)
The local world of Collegeville and St. Joseph gets into the manuscript at other places as well. There are images of the Abbey Church and a smaller chapel, Stella Maris, in “Life in Community” (see image, left) in Acts. The dome of Sacred Heart Chapel, the church of the sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in Saint Joseph, shows up in an illumination in Wisdom Books. There are even some dorm buildings in “Life of Paul.” The Saint John’s Bible is a book made by specific people in a specific time for a specific community. It is both timeless and placed in its own context. It is a historic achievement—not something standing outside of history.
What is your favorite illumination in the Bible?
For me, Prophets and Wisdom Books are the high points of the project. Everything came together—theology and art—and everyone seemed to be working at the highest possible level. The illuminations are gorgeous. The imagery is imaginative and lush. As far as favorites go, I love “Life in Community” (above) in Acts, which is a combination of two icons, updated. I also love “Creation, Covenant, Shekinah, Kingdom” (above). That illumination, in Wisdom Books, draws on images from earlier illuminations and tells the whole story of God with the people. Thomas Ingmire’s illuminations also stand out. He is an incredibly gifted illuminator. If I had to choose one to highlight, it would be his illumination, “The Ten Commandments” (see image, right).
What is the connection between the art of The Saint John’s Bible and worship?
It’s interesting. Jackson said he got the idea of approaching Saint John’s when he saw a procession during Mass in which one of the monks was holding a book of the gospels aloft.
I have been in a few services in which images from The Saint John’s Bible are projected as part of a worship service or on display at the ambo. It always reminds me of the Easter Vigil. We sit in darkness and listen to seven scripture readings, responding in prayer and song. It’s my favorite night of the whole year. Scripture read aloud in worship is in itself powerful. The Saint John’s Bible acknowledges the power of this book. And there are places, especially in text treatments in Wisdom Books, or the canticles in The Book of the Gospels, or the great hymns in Paul’s letters, where the text seems to sing and dance on the page.
I was talking to someone recently from a less liturgical tradition. She said that her community has used the Heritage Edition in a series of visio divina sessions. People have responded well. They said they are not used to “looking” at scripture that way or responding to art rooted in scripture. It’s just not part of their tradition. But they find it meaningful. I love how ecumenical The Saint John’s Bible is, how it has spoken into many traditions. Catholics have a reputation for not being big on reading the Bible, for treating it more like an ornament or special object. The Saint John’s Bible encourages us both to read the Bible and to view it as a special object. It is bringing the Bible into lots of homes in reproductions and giving people a fresh way to approach the Bible. At the same time, perhaps it is moving people in more iconoclastic traditions toward a richer experience of the Bible.
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.