Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The St. John's Bible Project

So, interesting thing. A week ago, my university had a presentation about this project - Donald Jackson, scribe for Queen Elizabeth II, has undertaken with the help of 16 other people an attempt to create a modern illuminated manuscript of the Bible.

The inks are made from natural sources (black ink being made from solidified 19th century candle smoke). The illuminations are both incredibly modern and highly traditional. The pages are made from vellum. The project has completed six of the seven volumes it will take to hold the whole thing, with volume seven Letters and Revelation to be completed in April of next year, closing a twelve year effort.

The letters are handwritten with quills - and, just so you know, the idea of writing with a quill that still has feather on it is silly and not how any quill has ever been used; the images are all hand-drawn and coloured with quills as well.

St John's University is a Catholic university and has a monastery where the completed version will be used.

Like I said, this is a 21st century Bible made for the 21st century, not a 15th Century Bible made in the 21st century. The art is reflective of modern ideas and knowledge and places itself very clearly as both from Minnesota and from the early 21st Century. The NRSV is the version used to transcribe from.

Some of the really nice illuminations here -

That's the image used to open the Gospel According to Matthew. It's a genealogy of Jesus going back to Abraham. Interesting touches - the shape of the Menorah for the family tree, the Arabesques at the top, the Tibetan prayer wheel on the handle. All names are written in both English and Hebrew, though at the bottom you can see Hagar's name in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Unlike how it would be in the Middle Ages, women's names are included in the genealogy. And, it's hard to see, but trust me on this because I got a look up close at a print copy of the Gospels and Acts volume, in between the arms of the Menorah you will see tiny golden strands of DNA.

The opening of the Gospel According to Luke

Here's an interesting touch - that bull in the picture is based on the Lascaux cave paintings. Flip the page nine times and you'll find a large picture depicting many of the parables and stories told in the book. If you look closely, though, the segment with the prodigal son has a golden representation of the Twin Towers. This page was completed around the time that happened, so Jackson decided to include it.

The frontispiece for Genesis is rather nifty.

You have seven sections - the days of creation. The left shows chaos, but also an explosion referencing Big Bang theory. The single beam of gold there is the "let there be light." In the sixth section you can see images of people - based on aboriginal and African cave art. The first image of a person, hard as it might be to tell, is a huntress. The little golden squares make up a triangle, and are polished gold leaf to reflect the reader's face. Jackson was asked to figure out for himself how he wanted to represent God, so he chose to reflect the reader because God says "And let us make man in our own image." If you flip a few pages in the Genesis section of the book-reading pages, you'll see Adam and Eve done in a very Afro-Aboriginal style with clothing patterns from various cultures making up the border of the picture.

Last, and this was the coolest thing, I thought:

Let's go to Matthew.

Turn the page seven times.

There's a three-part image. The left side is a depiction of Hell, filled with idols. In the middle of the image, though? In the middle of the image of Hell is a blown-up rendering of what the AIDS virus looks like under a microscope. Jackson wanted to reflect a modern Hell in that image.

It's really rather neat and I'm glad I went to check out this presentation. Plus, I found out the Dead Sea Scrolls and 28 pages of this Bible are going to be on display in St. Paul in March, so I've got potential plans for my spring break.

If you get the chance, check it out. Even if for no other reason than to say you did. It's the first commission of an illuminated manuscript of the Bible in 500 years. The thing's just historic in and of itself.

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