Sisters help craft the first handmade Bible in 500 years
by Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — In the beginning was the Word.
And it was always all about the word for Sister Irene Nowell, OSB.
But her work on The Saint John’s Bible — the first handcrafted, illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years — changed her mind. “Before it was always the words,” said Sister Irene, past president of the Catholic Biblical Association, but now she is “beginning to appreciate [Scripture] more through images.”
As a nationally known Scripture scholar, the substance of Sister Irene’s work is the meaning of words and language used in the Bible. The stunning and whimsical images in The St. John’s Bible, however, offered such a different perspective that some surprised even an expert like her.
One such example is the illustration for the raising of Lazarus, as told in the Gospel of John.
“This is Lazarus,” said Sister Irene, pointing to a dark figure in a cave, “and this is Jesus,” pointing to a tiny figure framed by the tomb’s round opening.
“[In this illumination] we are in the tomb with Lazarus,” she continued. “Every time I heard this Gospel reading, I [imagined myself] standing outside the tomb with Jesus waiting for Lazarus to come out. But if you think about Jesus being the resurrection and the life, we’re the ones in the tomb. I would have never thought of that without the illumination. I don’t think the words would have ever done it for me.”
Looking forward, looking back
Before the invention of printing, the only way to produce books was to write them out by hand. So, for more than 1,000 years, the Bible and all other books were written by calligrapher-monks, many of them Benedictines.
By dipping their quills in ink and carefully copying out the words, letter by letter, on a specially prepared leather called vellum, these monks preserved the Scriptures through the Dark and Middle Ages.
Often these ancient manuscripts were works of exquisite beauty, with elaborate letters, colorful illustrations and gold leaf decoration.
It was this shining gold that caused these books to be called “illuminated,” although any decorated manuscript from those periods is now referred to by that name.
There’s a difference between illustrated and illuminated, said Sister Irene. An illustrated work will feature a drawing that very literally depicts what is happening in the text. An illuminated work, on the other hand, often employs symbolism to communicate something about the text.
“To illuminate means to bring out the ideas in the text, to give greater insight into the text,” said Sister Irene.
The Saint John’s Bible came about out of a desire of master calligrapher Donald Jackson to handcraft either a Gospel or an entire Bible using the kinds of materials and tools used by medieval monks.
Jackson, who is from Great Britain, had already worked with the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., on different calligraphy projects. When Jackson shared his ambition with one of the Benedictines, the monk happily put the idea to his abbey’s chapter.
It was an ambitious undertaking, but the monks enthusiastically approved the project. After five years of preparation, Jackson wrote the first words in 2000.
Although the Saint John’s Bible is being produced with the same kinds of tools and techniques of the medieval monks, it was never meant to be an attempt to create an exact duplicate of a medieval Bible.
Rather, this is a Bible for the new millennium, with images engaging and accessible to modern readers.
A creative collaboration
Sister Irene, a Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, became involved when she was asked to serve on the eight-member Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT) of the Bible project.
This committee worked closely with Jackson and his team of artists; in fact, no pen touched paper until the words and images were approved by the CIT.
Sister Irene’s area of expertise is the Old Testament. As the CIT took up various early books of the Bible, she and other members of her committee would explain to the artists how current scholarship interpreted the passage under discussion. After the exegesis, a freewheeling discussion generally followed.
“We worked together to provide [Jackson] with a solid exegesis and ideas about what we wanted to be highlighted in the illuminations,” said Sister Irene. “And we then did some free association of how it hooked up with Benedictines, how it was connected to St. John’s, and other things.”
“I would do my little exegesis, and the artists would say, ’Oh, you can do this, or maybe we can pull in this,’” added Sister Irene. “One of the artists was a specialist in Asian art, and she’d say, ‘That reminds me of some Asian piece.’”
But Sister Irene wasn’t the archdiocese’s only claim to fame on this elite team of Scripture scholars.
Sister Susan Wood, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and a systematic theologian, had also been asked to participate.
She couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more.
“We’d come together for hour and a half meetings,” said the theology professor and chair of the department of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “We worked from our personal experience as much as from our professional expertise, making connections to this and other biblical texts, and the various associations and why they were important.”
“I looked forward to those meetings,” she concluded. “This committee was wonderful. It was a way of sharing faith together and then talking about the biblical text.”
Symbolism and whimsy
Although most of the images in the Saint John’s Bible are carefully planned, a few made it on the page by mistake.
No matter how careful they are, the calligraphers will occasionally leave out words. Since it is too costly to throw away a nearly completed page, the artists and calligraphers followed the example of the medieval calligraphers.
The artists drew little birds in the margin that appear to “carry” the mislaid sentence or word to the correct spot in the manuscript. In the Saint John’s Bible, one artist drew a bee hauling up the words with a rope and pulley system.
The majority of the images, however, show no trace of medieval style or symbolism.
“It’s not a medieval Bible,” said Sister Irene. “The decision was made very early to use modern [images].”
For example, when Jesus tells his disciples in the Acts of the Apostles to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, the illustration is of a galaxy as seen through the Hubble Space Telescope. An image of the Earth from outer space is found on the facing page.
Likewise, the frontispiece for the Book of Genesis depicts Africans in tribal accouterments — a nod to science pointing to Africa as the location of human origins.
The frontispiece for the Gospel of Matthew, meanwhile, illustrates Jesus’ genealogy. In between the names are little golden pieces of the double helix of DNA, referencing the biological origins of Jesus. All the names are in Hebrew and English.
“We also have the name of Sarah, who is not in Matthew, and Hagar, who is Abraham’s other wife, and her name is also written in Arabic because she’s the mother of the Arabs,” said Sister Irene.
A particularly nice illustration is found in the Book of Psalms. Spread across several pages is a digital voiceprint of the monks of St. John Abbey chanting the psalms. Other squiggly lines are voiceprints of chanting and praying from a variety of cultures and religions, to show that God constantly receives our praise and prayers.
Was it worth it?
Creating The Saint John’s Bible was an expensive, decade-long project. Was it worth it?
“Absolutely,” said Sister Susan. “This was the creation of a beautiful work of art, and you shouldn’t have a utilitarian purpose to make something beautiful.
“Second, it has a lot of potential to make the Scriptures come alive for a lot of people. It can be a vehicle for catechesis.”
Sister Irene, likewise, hopes that this new Bible will be another way to help people pray the Scriptures and see the familiar stories from new perspectives, as it has done for her.
“It has given me a whole different way to approach Scripture,” she said. “My firm belief about Scripture is that we need to look at it at every possible way we can.
“It never stops giving. The word of God is living, so there’s always more there.”
Although the calligraphy throughout the Saint John’s Bible is completed, the illumination of two volumes is still in progress. One contains the historical books of the Old Testament; the other contains the epistles and Book of Revelation in the New Testament.
When it is completed, the Bible will be housed at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.