As a creative type, I’m predisposed to falling in love rather quickly—not to mention frequently--with beautiful pieces of art and forms that are exquisitely crafted. But as easily beguiled as I may be by design aesthetics, I’m still capable of recognizing the value of works that offer viewers something more profound to think about than an initial “pretty” or “cool” factor. As a specific example, I recently took my design students to St. Mary’s College to see one of this area’s best-kept (open) secrets, a sacred text that is also a phenomenal piece of artistry: The Saint John’s Bible. A former professor of mine recommended that I make a point of seeing it given my interest in calligraphy and hand lettering; I was already inclined to be impressed and captivated by the work.
One year and four viewings later, The Saint John's Bible continues to be one of the most magnificent books I have ever laid eyes on. And unlike a temporary infatuation that might be engaging at first glance, my admiration for this extraordinary work grows each time I have the opportunity to leaf through the pages, appreciating the details of the lettering, the expressive nature of the illuminations and the general magnitude of the undertaking that made the existence of this series of books possible.
The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in over 500 years (that is, since the invention of the printing press). The project, which was led by a renowned British calligrapher, Donald Jackson, along with a team of artists and scribes, took over 10 years to complete; the manuscript is bound in seven volumes, each measuring approximately 3 feet wide (when open) by 2 feet tall. There is only one original, but in an effort to make the Bible accessible to a wider audience, 299 full-size, fine art reproductions were printed, one of which now resides at St. Mary’s.
The work gives a nod to both past and present; it was created using techniques that are centuries old--it was also written on vellum--yet integrates contemporary themes that mark its 21st century context:
“It features 160 vibrant illuminations that include a blending of religious imagery from various traditions, cultures and creeds, as well visuals from modern time…”
On a basic level The Saint John's Bible is simply beautiful to look at. Beyond the surface, however, it speaks more directly to my experience in the world as a designer who loves type, an artist who appreciates good craft, a Christian who finds meaning in religious texts and as a woman of color with an ethnically diverse background.
But regardless of one’s religious persuasion, it is impossible not to acknowledge the sheer artistry of the work. Technology has certainly played a role throughout the entire process of developing and replicating the volumes yet it is a Bible that pays homage to the masterful skills of illustrators, calligraphers and scribes.
No Photoshopping, cutting and pasting or manipulating of images and typefaces was used to produce the layouts, all of which were created by hand. And though I am thankful for technological advances, I am also grateful--and perhaps a bit relieved--knowing that as humans we are still capable of communicating stories in both meaningful and aesthetically rich ways.
The Saint Mary’s College’s Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible is on permanent display at the Cushwa-Leighton Library.