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Historic St. John's Bible Comes To Illinois Wesleyan

The St. John's Bible is the first hand-painted, hand-written Bible created since the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago.

A high resolution fine arts copy of a portion of the Bible is coming to Illinois Wesleyan University in January and will be on display for the rest of the year. Entirely hand-written in an ancient calligraphy script, the Bible contains numerous illuminations—art that makes use of precious metals and vibrant colors to reflect light and create brilliance on the page.

The Bible gets its name from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, the project’s sponsor. St. John’s is run by Benedictine monks. Monks were the world’s scribes before the invention of the printing press, creating and copying and curating Bibles and other significant manuscripts. Irish Monks created the famous Book of Kells, a 9th century hand-painted Bible now housed at Trinity College in Dublin.

Creating the St. John’s Bible marked a massive undertaking. It involved some of the world’s most famous calligraphers and liturgical artists. The original Bible never leaves the climate-controlled library at St. John's, but high-quality copies, known as the Heritage Edition, do. They can be lent out to universities and other organizations for as long as a year.

“How does a small university in the middle of from Minnesota, in the middle of Lake Wobegon country reach the rest of the world? The main way we are doing it is through the Heritage Edition,” Jim Triggs, director of the St. John’s Heritage Program, said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

“We created something that is as close to the original as possible. These are limited editions and they are true to the artistic intent of the original,” Triggs added.”

Illinois Wesleyan is participating in program called “A Year With the St. John’s Bible.” Through a $9,500 grant from the Merwin Multi-Faith Fund, the university will take possession of the Heritage Edition of the four gospels of the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles for the coming year. The books will be on display in the Ames Library.

The idea of creating a modern-day hand-written Bible came from Donald Jackson, an Englishman who is the official calligrapher to the British crown.

“Donald Jackson at a very young age had this dream of hand-writing the Bible,” Triggs said. He announced his intention to create a handmade Bible in a 1995 interview with Barbara Walters on the "Today" show. Then he went looking for a partner to sponsor the project.

“In 1995, he basically pitched the idea, what if you at St. John’s, a Benedictine institution with a rich heritage of illuminated manuscripts from the past, hire me to hand-write a Bible using same tools as Medieval days, but that captures the essence of Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century?” Triggs recalled.

St. John's saw the project as an apt way to celebrate its Benedictine history at the start of a new millennium. Jackson was determined to make use, however, of contemporary images. That’s why you will find images of the World Trade Center in New York, which collapsed on one of the days Jackson was working on the Bible, as well as the DNA helix, a representation of the AIDS virus, and images from the Hubble Spacecraft.

In a sense, it marks a time capsule of the 20th and 21st centuries, Triggs said.

"The St. John's Bible is meant to be a gift for future generations."

“The St. John’s Bible is meant to be a gift for future generations as well,” he added. “Imagine someone looking at this Bible in the year 3017 and seeing Hubble-esque images, and they’ll say, that’s such a 21st century take on life on earth.”

Six artists and six calligraphers from around the world were engaged to work under Jackson’s creative direction. A team of Scripture scholars, theologians and art historians provided the artists with guidance for their images. The materials the artists used include gold, silver and platinum leaf, calf skin vellum, Chinese quills and organic minerals that were ground into pigment.

“The idea of using those materials is not so much to recreate history. If you look at the Book of Kells, it’s still in great shape. So we have this same vision for the St. John’s Bible. In using these organic materials … we have this vision of it still being in great shape in 1,000, 2,000, maybe even 3,000 years,” Triggs said.

Each of the seven volumes of the Bible is two feet by three feet wide when open. It usually took a calligrapher 12 hours to complete just one page.

“It was much more daunting than anyone thought,” Triggs said.

And there were inevitable mistakes. When that happened, rather than re-doing an entire page, the calligrapher would draw a line in the margin to direct readers to the correction, which was often marked with the drawing of a bumble bee or a monkey.

Funding for the project came entirely from private donations. Minnesota-based Target Corp. jump-started the funding with a $3.5 million grant.

“There were a lot of $5 and $10 donations and groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts also raised money,” Triggs said.

St. John’s won’t disclose the final cost of the project. “It was in the millions,” Triggs said.

Illinois Wesleyan will kick off a year of activities celebrating the Bible on Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m. with a free public lecture in Westbrook Auditorium by Tim Ternes, director of the Bible program at St. John’s.

Listen to the full interview

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