Donald Jackson, calligrapher and artistic director for The Saint John’s Bible, doesn’t like it when people refer to the writing in the The Saint John’s Bible as a “font.” It is not a font but a script. And it is a script Jackson designed carefully, in the hope that it would be both modern and readable while retaining the gravity and weight required to embody sacred scripture.
Why do people use the word font for all forms of printed letters? Probably because of the drop-down menu on their computers offering so many choices of letter styles. This feature would not be part of our lives without the Trappist monk and calligrapher Robert Palladino and his influence on Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers.
Jobs acknowledged the influence of Palladino on the design of the early Macintosh computer in a Stanford commencement address: “It was the first computer with beautiful typography,” Jobs said. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” In fact, Jobs had already dropped out of Reed College, but stuck around for a year just to audit classes, and one of them was a calligraphy course with Robert Palladino. Because PCs followed the lead of Apple in this area, we all have access to fonts on our personal computers, entering the world of Garamond and Times, Arial and Calibri—and arguments over the appropriate use of Comic Sans.
Palladino’s art was always an extension of his religious vocation. He joined a Trappist order in New Mexico in 1950, and his handwriting caught the attention of one of the monks, who worked with him on his craft. When the order moved to Oregon five years later, Palladino studied with Lloyd Reynolds, an icon in the field and creator of Reed’s calligraphy program. Palladino provided signage for the Abbey and calligraphy for works from the Benedictine Press at Mount Angel, as well as other religious art projects.
Eventually, after leaving the order in the wake of Vatican II reforms, Palladino joined the faculty and assumed the helm of Reed’s well-known program as a part-time faculty member until 1984, when the art department changed the curriculum. During the transition to his post at Reed, he spent six months in Iowa studying with Edward Catich. There he studied Roman capitals, printmaking, stone carving, drawing, and art history. Back in Oregon, in addition to his work at Reed, he hand-lettered all of the medical licenses for the state of Oregon for a time, worked as a professional calligrapher, and lectured far and wide.
But both as a monk and after leaving the monastery, his real love was writing Scripture and sacred texts. He described his ideal in an article in the Catholic Sentinel to “create a form as worthy as possible for divine content.” He specialized in the words of theologians and spiritual masters, as well as Scripture passages and the notes of ancient chant, in the hope of inspiring others as he had been inspired.
Palladino had directed the choir in his Trappist monastery, which sang Gregorian chant in Latin. Liturgical prayers took place eight times a day. The move away from chant in the mid-Sixties played an important role in his leaving the monastery. “For me the important thing is always the text,” he said. “Chant brings out the words better than any other music. It was the ideal liturgical music for me.”
At about the same time as he left the monastery (1968) he began taking clarinet lessons to learn modern notation, in an effort to embrace liturgical changes. A year later, he married his clarinet teacher Catherine Halverson, principal clarinetist for the symphony in Portland.
Eventually Palladino and Halverson moved to a 20-acre property in nearby Sandy, Oregon. Like Donald Jackson’s scriptorium, their land was populated by sheep, which they tended along with a large garden. Catherine died in 1987, and Father Palladino returned to the priesthood, receiving papal approval after a three-year process at the Vatican and in Oregon. He served as a parish priest for 12 years. Even after retirement, he officiated at weddings and presided at Mass most weekends, including Latin Masses at St. Stephen’s in Portland. His love for ancient liturgy remained strong, even as he worked to bring the church into the modern world.
Chuck Lehman, a longtime calligrapher and an Oregon Catholic, says Father Palladino’s distinctive contribution to the craft is his “total devotion” to the scholarship of Roman Caps, the lettering that many in the calligraphy community consider a high point of the art of western civilization. Writing in the Catholic Sentinel, journalist Ed Langlois commented that Lehman saw in Palladino a deep sense of Jesus as the Word and the art of God. That Palladino viewed the written word as important comes as “no surprise” to Lehman.
One thing Palladino never did was use a computer. “To me [writing by hand is] a human experience,” he says. “Writing on a computer is dehumanizing. You feel the same way when you push an e as when you push an r. To me, every letter has a personality.”
Of a show he composed on fifteen psalms, under the title “A song of ascents,” he said, he could still hear the chant tone and Latin words ringing in his head from 18 years in the monastery. According to the Catholic Sentinel, “His letters… must give dimension to that sound, and even more, to the incomparable message.”
Robert Palladino died February 28, 2016, at the age of 83. He left a beautiful legacy, of a life well lived in service to God and others, and beauty that pervades our world through the combination of new technology and the practice of the art of beautiful writing.