By Phoebe Carter
Artists used goose feather quills and hand-ground inks in the making of the new St. John’s Bible, but their illuminations of the Big Bang, an East African Garden of Eden and a double-helix DNA strand ground this Bible firmly in the 21st century.
Two of the Bible’s seven-volume set are now on display in the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives. The yearlong exhibit opened March 25.
Professor of Religious Studies Royal Rhodes, Professor of Art History Sarah Blick and former Special Collections manager Lynn Manner have been planning the exhibit for more than a year. The cost to bring the two volumes, of which there are only 299 in print, was $5,000. Nine departments in a variety of disciplines, from art history to physics, contributed.
“It’s really something that botanists, that biologists, that environmentalists will be interested in as well as art historians and artists and literary studies and religion,” Rhodes said, referring to the book’s scientifically accurate illustrations based on plants and animals from an environmental preserve at St. John’s University in Minnesota, the Bible’s home.
“It’s one of those things that really brings together a lot of disciplines, so we thought it would be appropriate here,” Rhodes said. One page features images from the Hubble Space Telescope, while other illustrations portray the women who were often excluded from biblical genealogies, Native American imagery and scenes of genocide to represent modern issues of oppression alongside celebrations of human accomplishment.
The Bible’s creators want this to be a Bible for the 21st century, one that places it in its historical context for future historians, according to Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Williams-Clymer. The project was the brainchild of Donald Jackson, the senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office. It cost $8 million and took 15 years to complete.
Like Rhodes, Jackson’s vision for this bible goes beyond the Church. Volumes are displayed in public and private institutions around the world, including the Mayo Clinic and public libraries.
Jackson didn’t want the Bible to be a museum piece, either. The books on exhibit in Kenyon’s archives are there to be seen, touched and flipped through, “no gloves needed,” Williams-Clymer said.
“People keep saying the book is dead,” Rhodes said, “but that announcement is highly overrated. It’s still very much alive.” This is the first hand-illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in over 500 years, and combines ancient tools and techniques with state-of-the-art layout design technology. The volumes measure two feet by three feet when open.
Williams-Clymer said this week’s opening was purposely quiet. The big fanfare will come this October when, for one month, 10 framed illuminations will be on display along with the year-long exhibit. The month will feature speakers and other events to highlight Jackson’s creation. “Jackson talked about the original illuminations of Bibles and other sacred texts, where the idea was to instill wonder,” Rhodes said, “so he’s trying to find a modern way to do that.”