Home > News & Media > Dog-Eared Blog > Sacred Words: The Saint John's Bible and the Art of Illumination

Sacred Words: The Saint John's Bible and the Art of Illumination

Illuminated text

   In 1995, a Benedictine abbey located in Collegeville, Minnesota began the pursuit of an undertaking not attempted by a monastery of this sort for over 500 years.  It would commission the production of a work intended to fuse ancient Benedictine tradition with both modern art and contemporary vision.  The aim of the project was to illuminate long-sacred biblical text for the eyes of a new generation living in a new millennium.  This concept of capturing the beauty and tradition of liturgical writing and continuing its legacy into the future served as a unifying vision that would soon bring together a renowned calligrapher from the United Kingdom and a group of Benedictine monks half the world away in an endeavor of extraordinary proportions.  From a scriptorium in Wales, the Queen’s official calligrapher, Donald Jackson, would come to combine his artistic vision with the ideologies of St. John’s Abbey and begin the realization of creating a masterpiece of historic cultural significance.  From start to finish, the work signified a grand collaboration spanning the Atlantic Ocean to include artists, calligraphers, theologians, historians and scholars.  Today, thanks to the hard work and dedication of those who devoted their time and efforts to this monumental task, The Saint John's Bible is not only a manuscript of profound theological importance but also one of immense artistic merit.  

    Although this illuminated, handwritten text is firmly rooted in the traditions of the ancient masters, through the application of present-day artisanship and technique, The Saint John’s Bible has emerged as a truly singular work.  At once old and new, it combines the ancient craft of calligraphy with illumination created through the unique vision and skill of contemporary artists.  It is the first handwritten Bible that interprets and illustrates scripture from a twenty-first century perspective, reflecting a multicultural world as well as humanity’s enormous strides in science, technology and space travel.  It also pays homage to Minnesota as its birthplace with illustrations that include flora and fauna indigenous to the region.  Written on vellum, using quills, natural inks, hand-ground pigments and gold-leaf gilding, the work is presented in the New Revised Standard Version, complimented by beautifully painted illuminations that interpret biblical passages in contemporary terms.  Today, the work is considered by many to be a modern masterpiece.

    Commencing its national and international exhibition tour in April 2005 with the opening of Illuminating the Word at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Saint John's Bible has since become well travelled, having been presented to educational, religious, healing and cultural centers around the world.  Beginning October 15 and extending through January 8, the manuscript will be on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, providing visitors with a unique opportunity to witness this momentous work.  Examining the revival of a millennia-old tradition of meticulous handcraftsmanship, Sacred Words: The Saint John’s Bible and the Art of Illumination will include a selection of seventy original, unbound illuminated folios from The Saint John’s Bible as well as sketches, drawings, inks and tools used to create the manuscript.  Additionally, in the Benedictine tradition of inclusion, Sacred Words incorporates elements from not only Christianity but also various world religions as illuminated selections from texts such as the Book of Hours, the Quran and the Torah scrolls will be on display as well.  Whether approached from a religious, historic or artistic point of view, the exhibit will indeed have much to offer its viewers.  So, don’t miss out on this one of a kind chance to explore the concepts, contexts, technical execution and significance behind the illumination of The Saint John’s Bible as well as other prominent liturgical works.

    To supplement your visit, The Metropolitan Library System has a number of resources covering illuminated manuscripts, religious texts, artistic techniques and more.  Be sure to stop by your local branch soon to browse some of these materials.  Also, don’t forget to visit the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library to view reproductions of the Gutenberg Bible as well as the system’s very own copy of the Book of Hours dating back to 1451 A.D.  In the meantime, below are some of the options the system has available for check out today.


Calligraphy & Illumination: A History and Practical Guide by Patricia Lovett

Nothing has captured the imagination of the public more than the beauty of the tools, materials and techniques employed in the composition of The Saint John's Bible. Yet, before a single page could be created, a number of decisions needed to be made regarding how to represent the original meaning of the work through not only text but through illumination as well. From what translation to use to what size page to allocate for a particular illumination, each decision was guided by a set of principles and guidelines with careful consideration given to the choosing of themes and motifs. This required a thorough understanding of the art form, its history and its applications. Thanks to such meticulous practices, illuminated manuscripts have provided a rich source of inspiration for calligraphers, artists and, today, graphic designers. Calligraphy & Illumination: A History and Practical Guide examines the story of this ancient tradition, exploring the use of imagery as well as decoration and illustrating methods for creating a variety of projects ranging from the simple to the technically advanced. With special chapters written by experts in the fields of calligraphy, illumination and heraldry, this colorful volume offers a treasure trove of exquisitely illuminated manuscripts from the British Library combined with a detailed reference section providing valuable insight into the techniques and procedures used for selecting materials, mixing colors and preparing and stretching vellum.

A History of Illuminated Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

During the Middle Ages, monumental Bibles were made for daily use by monastic communities. At the same time, extensive care was taken to ensure that these texts would be carefully preserved for future generations. It is no coincidence that The Saint John's Bible follows the path of this grand tradition. While the creators of this fascinating work have utilized modern themes and techniques, they have also taken great pains to observe and apply the practices, materials and methodologies that have sustained the influence of these classical manuscripts throughout the centuries. The illuminated volumes that have survived the Middle Ages, many of which are today counted among the greatest masterpieces of Western civilization, serve as powerful influences on modern works such as The St. John’s Bible. Today, images taken from these distinguished artifacts may also be seen everywhere from greeting cards and wrapping paper to expensive facsimiles. From the Dark Ages to the invention of printing and beyond, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts is an entertaining and authoritative book, providing a general introduction to the subject of the creation of these texts. Author Christopher de Hamel vividly describes the widely different circumstances in which manuscripts were created, including some of the earliest monastic Gospel Books, university textbooks, secular romances, Books of Hours and classical texts. As the story unfolds, a number of influential manuscripts and their illuminations are revealed, answering many fundamental questions concerning who wrote the books, the purposes they served, the texts they contained and how they were created.

Marvellous to Behold: Miracles in Medieval Manuscripts by Deirdre Elizabeth Jackson

Benedict's Rule instructs the reader to "listen ... with the ear of your heart." Adhering to this tenet, the text and illuminations of The Saint John's Bible encourage viewers to take the time to truly consider the images and words being presented. While each collection of Biblical books takes on its own character, images and motifs are often repeated across each volume. One such theme prevalent throughout illuminated Biblical texts is that of miracles. For the initial witnesses of the images denoted in early illuminated works, miracles provided the notion of a wealth of wonders. To many of these viewers, these illuminations confirmed their belief in not only the existence of a Creator but also his willingness to intervene in the daily lives of followers. Not just associated with Christian writings, the illustration of miracles extends to other religious texts such as those relating Jewish and Islamic faiths. In fact, throughout the medieval period, the same miracles were featured in sacred illuminated works belonging to each of the three religions. While there is a prominent spiritual aspect to these books, the content of illuminated manuscripts has just as much to tell us about the societies from which they originated as it does about the notions of the supernatural. Chronicling the medieval artists who took inspiration from everyday life, Marvellous to Behold explores a wide variety of illuminated sources such as legal texts, song books, devotional works, historical accounts and, of course, Biblical manuscripts. For those interested in miracles, the history of religions or medieval life and art, this lavishly illustrated volume is not to be missed.

The Book of Kells: Selected Plates in Full Color

The pages of The St. John’s Bible represent a collaborative effort, involving a host of contributors from both Wales and the United States. It stands to reason that a work of such magnitude should demand this type of attention. The scope of intricacy and detail found within illuminated texts such as this is indeed remarkable. With works extending well into humankind’s medieval past, such has been the tradition of the practice. Similar to the commission set forth by the monks of St. John’s Abbey, the long-venerated manuscript known as The Book of Kells, a stunningly beautiful volume containing the Four Gospels, was also subject to international influence. Shaped by Celtic, British, Norman, Italian, Byzantine and Coptic influences, it is today recognized as one of Ireland's most precious medieval artifacts. And, like The St. John’s Bible, the Book of Kells' painters and scribes illumined their work with a purely idiosyncratic beauty. The scale and ambition of the book is incredible, making it one of the finest surviving illuminated manuscripts to have been produced in Medieval Europe. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message while keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader. Although the date and place of origin for the Book of Kells have attracted a great deal of scholarly controversy, this has only added to the power and mystery that made it unique among early medieval manuscripts. Today, the original work is on display at Trinity College, Dublin. However, the Metropolitan Library owns a more accessible reproduction. In this copy, thirty-two full-page, full-color plates have been selected and painstakingly printed to retain the ineffable hand painted impression of the original leaves. With decorations, portraits, and illustrations included, as well as a representative sampling of the textual leaves in their graceful calligraphy, the impact of this book’s lavish decoration is incomparable.

William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books by William Blake

Infused with sublime and exhilarating colors, The St. John’s Bible is truly a spectacle to behold. Each page offers a selection of rich, sacred text surrounded by allegorical imagery. The contemporary style of the images, presented in a dialectical relationship with each passage, serve a far deeper purpose than simple illustration for the narrative. The depictions enhance the language, adding another dimension to each section and bringing to light the work’s applications for the modern world. When it comes to illuminated writings such as this, every aspect of its construction is integral in achieving this effect. From the methods used to convey meaning to the context within which the work originated, all facets contribute to the depth and richness of the experience. In the late 1780s, the poet William Blake attempted to usher in a revival of the illuminated manuscript. For his own politically satiric and poetically visionary works, he utilized the technique as a means of fusing the visual and the literary into a form which, according to Blake, would cleanse the "doors of perception." In his Illuminated Books, Blake combined text and imagery on a single page in a way that had not been done since the Middle Ages. For the poet, religion and politics as well as intellect and emotion were elements inextricably bound together, sometimes acting in harmony, sometimes in conflict. William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books brings together the plates from the William Blake Trust's Collected Edition in a single volume. Explaining what sets apart the illuminated manuscript from other similar art forms, The Complete Illuminated Books touches on every detail of the history, process and progression of the practice throughout the centuries.

The Illuminated Kaddish: Interpretations of the Mourner's Prayer by Hyla Shifra Bolsta

Steeped in tradition and sacred rites, religious manuscripts often command reverence from many readers no matter their ideology. Through the use of vivid imagery and iconography, illumination adds another aspect to the text, often giving it the ability to convey its message on a deeper level. The stunning renderings in The St. John’s Bible serve to bring the work’s message to a broader audience and make it more applicable for the twenty-first century. Viewers may choose to appreciate the work as a religious text, a work of fine art or perhaps both. The same may be said for a number of other illuminated manuscripts. Recited for nearly 2,000 years to honor and commemorate loved ones who have passed away, Kaddish, also known as the "Mourner's Prayer," is one of Judaism’s greatest mitzvahs. Emphasizing faith, promise and honor for both family and individuals within the Jewish faith, Kaddish is traditionally recited for 11 months from the day of the loved one’s passing and again on the Yahrzeit, the anniversary of the loss. The Illuminated Kaddish: Interpretations of the Mourner’s Prayer, brings new life to this age-old practice. Not just a sacred book for those in mourning, this is also a notable work of aesthetic beauty that is certain to inspire profound consideration whether it be spiritual or artistic in nature. Artist and designer Hyla Shifra Bolsta offers new interpretations of this universal prayer presented in calligraphic text and captivating artwork. With a deep understanding of Jewish tradition and ritual, Bolsta has created a contemporary illuminated manuscript awash with gorgeous images and striking, thought-provoking text which both serve to add a new dimension to the simple prayer.

Additional Reading



Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Site Feedback