The Saint John’s Bible: Illuminating the Word of God in Minnesota

(Last Updated On: May 26, 2020)

The Saint John’s Bible brings the ancient art of handwritten and illuminated manuscripts into the 21st century, as both a religious text and work of art. See it at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, at an exhibit near you, or online.

artwork with a quill pen, arches, and more

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What is the Saint John’s Bible?

The Saint John’s Bible is a modern, English-language Christian Bible. The manuscript includes over 1000 pages written and illustrated by hand on vellum parchment. Its creation used techniques and materials that would have been familiar to medieval Benedictine monks in the days before the printing press combined with a bit of modern computer technology.

The result is both a religious book and a one-of-a-kind work of art designed to “illuminate the Word of God for a new millennium.”

Who thought the modern world needed a Medieval-style bible?

While the Saint John’s Bible was created for Saint John’s University and Abbey in Minnesota, the idea came from Welsh calligrapher Donald Jackson.


How was the Saint John’s Bible created?

Jackson inscribed the first words of the Saint John’s Bible on Ash Wednesday in March 2000.

Fittingly, he began with the opening lines from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, the Word was God. . . “

Before writing those words, Jackson spent two years planning the project.

A slow and deliberate process

The Saint John’s Bible was produced using traditional materials like calfskin vellum for the pages; hand-cut feather quills for text; 19th century Chinese ink; powdered vermilion, lapis, malachite and other pigments mixed with egg and water for artwork and embellishments; and gold leaf.

Everything was done by hand. Not just the writing and artwork, but even producing the materials that would be used. Before text could be written or artwork added, vellum pages needed to be scraped and burnished, quill pens fine-tuned or new ones created, ink mixed, and more.

It was a meticulous process, and a slow one.

Each page of text took 7-13 hours to write.

On May 9, 2011, eleven years after writing “In the beginning was the Word,“ Jackson inscribed the final “Amen” in the Book of Revelation.

But that wasn’t quite the end.

Final work on the illuminations wasn’t finished until 2013.

Only then was the Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten bible produced in 500 years, complete.

A bible that includes all 73 Old and New Testament books recognized by the Roman Catholic Church arranged into seven volumes: Gospels and Acts, Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Books, Historical Books (Joshua, Judges, etc.), and Letters and Revelation. (Each volume varies in size and has distinct design features.)

It took 23 artists, 15 years, and $4 million dollars to complete over 1,100 manuscript pages, with more than 160 illuminations.

See the Saint John’s Bible

Saint John’s University offers several options for “seeing” this spectacular bible:

  • See original manuscript pages at the Saint John’s Bible Gallery in central Minnesota.
  • See either original manuscript pages or high-quality prints at museums, schools, churches, and medical facilities around the country.
  • View the complete Bible or selected images online.

Explore the Saint John’s Bible Gallery

To best safeguard the original manuscript while making it available to the public, the University created a state-of-the-art gallery.

At any given time, the Saint John’s Bible Gallery displays 28 original folios (two facing pages), a selection of medieval manuscripts from the university’s collection, and exhibits on creating the bible.

Because the manuscript pages are changed at least once a year, the pages described here will probably not be on view when you visit. But I guarantee that the pages you see will be just as beautiful and as intellectually and spiritually compelling as those highlighted here.

Art and ideas on exhibit

Visiting the Saint John’s Bible Gallery is a bit like stepping into a jewelry box. Moving through the darkened space, the illuminated pages of the Bible glow like precious gems from within their well-lit cases.

gallery with lit display cases

The largest section of the gallery is devoted to a selection of original manuscript pages from all seven volumes. It is an exhibition of the manuscript’s artistry and the complex ideas – both ancient and modern – woven into it.

Each set of pages is displayed with a placard below that identifies the artwork, the artist, the year it was produced, the translation used, the scribe who created the text, the materials used, and a brief description of image and ideas incorporated into it.

two pages from a manuscript with an illustration

The card beneath explains that it is the Psalms Book V Frontispiece created by Donald Jackson in 2004 using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It identifies the scribes who transcribed these pages as Sally Mae Joseph and Brian Simpson. It also identifies the materials used: vellum (a calf skin parchment), soot-based black ink, gouache (an opaque watercolor paint) and casein (a milk-based paint), and gold leaf.

This card also explains an unusual technique used throughout the book of Psalms:

Superimposed on this image are digital voice prints (electronic images of sound) of sung chants, hinting at the way we might “see” psalms if they are sung or read poetically. The voice prints come from recordings of the monks at Saint John’s Abbey singing Gregorian chant; a Native American sacred song; a Jewish men’s chorus singing psalms; Buddhist tantric harmonics; an Islamic call to prayer (adhan); Taoist temple music; Hindu bhajan [a devotional song]; and an Indian Sufi chant. The voice prints of the Saint John’s monks appear on every page, moving horizontally throughout the Psalms in gold. The voice prints of other traditions run vertically throughout the pages with the scroll designs.”

Art and words speak to our world today

The illuminations are more than beautiful illustrations of ancient text. They are not simple illustrations of the text. Instead they are intended to lead to insight, to bring the meaning of the word of God to light – to enlighten us through the word of God. In a sense, they are a visual form of mediation that leads the viewer to look more deeply into the text’s meaning. The beautiful, glowing artwork encourages us to consider issues we all, Christians and non-believers alike, still struggle with today.

An example comes from the Book of Amos. It’s titled the Demands of Social Justice and was created by Suzanne Moore in 2005, Poetry Scribe Brian Simpson, and Prose Scribe Sue Hufton, with Hebrew Script by Izzy Pludwinski.

illustration

The information provided with the card explains “Social justice is a main theme in Amos, and the fractured words also refer to the ways injustice and inequality fracture society. God is a God of compassion; people have a choice, and yet they turn from God and do not put in place a society that welcomes.”

stylized painting of a locust

Amo’s prophecy urges his people to repent of their sins of social injustice caring for the poor and the downtrodden. Their failure to do so, according to Amos, will be their own undoing, which comes to pass with the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. The admonition, “Yet you did not return to me,” here highlighted in a special treatment, is repeated often in the text as God warns of the consequences of their choices, disobedience and corruption. Through Amos, God promises swift justice for the unrighteous, as well as redemption for the poor and oppressed. The illumination is fractured into seven unruly pieces punctuated by the repeated text. The green, blue, and black panels, representing sky, sea and earth, are chaotic and not fruitful. The depiction ends with an abstract locust in the right margin, the curse of farmers from antiquity to the present.

Mistakes become works of art

Bright, clean lighting in the display cases and large size of each page (each two-page spread is about two-feet by three-feet in size) make it easy to see the details incorporated into each illustration.

And there are a lot of details!

In creating a manuscript intended to be seen as much as read, no detail is too small to beautifully illustrate. That was as true in the Middle Ages as today.

Thus, following ancient traditions, the scribes writing the Saint John’s Bible even embellished corrections inserted into the text.

drawing of a lemur used to mark a correction

While the choice of embellishment may vary from those used by Monks in Medieval Europe (I doubt most were familiar with lemurs), the idea is the same.

And that’s true of everything about the Saint John’s Bible. It’s a thoroughly modern creation; but both its form and content would be instantly recognizable to the Medieval monks of days long gone. Indeed, I think they would be pleased to see this tradition so brilliantly brought to life once again.

See how the manuscript was created

Along with the bible itself, the Saint John’s Bible Gallery also has exhibits on how the bible was created.

While some pages on exhibit, like that with the lemur or those from Psalms, address techniques used to create the manuscript, exhibits specifically related to the bible’s creation include more detail. Photos, videos, and objects on display explain each step taken to plan for and create the manuscript. It also introduces visitors to the team who worked with Jackson in Wales to make this a reality.

display case with photograph, miniature document, and stencil

For example, a display in the exhibit includes one of the computer-generated mock-ups used to determine the exact layout of piece of artwork and word of text. It also includes a photo of the team at the Scriptorium in Wales holding sections of another of these miniature planning documents.

Stencils, like the one shown here, were used to provide consistent designs that could be repeated across multiple pages.

See rare documents from the University’s collection

The Bible Gallery also includes exhibits on the history of religious texts. This includes information on the materials used and the production of manuscripts and other documents. There is also a selection of texts on display from various time periods.

detail of text in multiple languages

Although this part of the exhibit is small (and a little dark), it’s informative and includes a few very interesting pieces. It also provides a good sense of the tradition the Saint John’s Bible grew out of.

Portions of the Saint John’s Bible may be on display near you

The mission of The Saint John’s Bible is to ignite the spiritual imagination of people from all faith journeys with a work of historical and artistic importance.

To fulfill this mission, Saint John’s University offers a variety of opportunities for communities beyond the university to experience the bible. This includes programming focused on art and history, as well as worship and spiritual practice.

That outreach includes exhibitions of original manuscript pages and high-quality prints, as well loans of an individual volume from the reproduction “Heritage” edition for programming at churches, schools, and other institutions. In addition, a number of churches, schools, and other institutions own and display their own copies of the Heritage edition.


See the Saint John’s Bible and learn more online

Whether you simply want to see more images from the Saint John’s Bible, learn more about its creation, or dive into the history of illuminated manuscripts, there are lots of online resources.


More things to do at Saint John’s University

Saint John’s University combines a Roman Catholic university, a grade 6-12 college preparatory school, and a Benedictine monastery. But this busy campus also serves visitors of any (or no) religious background.

The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library collections

The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library’s Reading Room and exhibits feature rare volumes and art from the University’s collection. They are open to the public during Alcuin Library hours.

Although a modern creation, the Saint John’s Bible is part of the University’s rare book and manuscript collection. A collection includes over 10,000 manuscripts and printed books that date back as far as the 15th century.

The Abbey and University Church

The Abbey and University Church welcomes both spiritual visitors and architecture buffs. The mid-century  church is an architecturally-significant building designed by Marcel Breuer. It is the most dynamic of a suite of buildings designed by Breuer for the campus during the 1950s.

Saint John's Abbey and University Church from outside

Those wishing to participate in daily prayers or worship should check the online schedule.

All visitors should be respectful whenever they visit, as this is a sacred space and an active place of prayer and worship.


Plan your trip to Saint John’s University

Because it is both a monastic community and a center of learning, Saint John’s University is generally open to the public throughout the year. However, most buildings, including the Bible Gallery, do close for breaks during the academic year (but not for the summer).

Saint John’s has a brief online video tour of the Bible Gallery and other campus features. It’s a good introduction to a campus visit.

Other things to in the Saint Cloud area

The Saint Cloud area has three colleges: Saint John’s University and its sister institution, the College of Saint Benedict, as well as Saint Cloud State University. Together the three schools draw a large population of young people to the region. That also means there are plenty of concerts, sporting events, festivals, and outdoor activities available.

Lodging

There aren’t a lot of lodging options in the small towns nearest Saint John’s University. There is at least one B&B and a motel in Saint Joseph, but nearby Waite Park and Saint Cloud have a lot more options.

You can see what’s available, read reviews, and find the best prices on TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Expedia.

Likewise, most listings on Airbnb are located or right around Saint Cloud. If you haven’t tried Airbnb, this link can save you $30 on your first booking.

There is also a guesthouse at Saint John’s Abbey. This is open to guests of all faiths, but is intended to serve as a quiet, spiritual retreat. Contact the guesthouse directly for reservations.

Of course, there are also lodging options in all the towns along the Lake Wobegon Trail through Central Minnesota.

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