TOPICS > Nation

New Bible

December 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the rarefied world of calligraphy, it doesn’t get much better than being Donald Jackson; a scribe to the queen of England, a man whose work graces royal proclamations. But from his scriptorium in Wales, a team led by Jackson has taken on what he calls their Sistine Chapel project– a hand- written, illuminated bible. There’s been nothing like it since Michelangelo’s time. It will have 160 illuminations using handmade inks and gold and silver to illustrate significant events and passages — 1,150 pages in all, on vellum — Made from calf and sheepskin as in medieval times.

DONALD JACKSON, Calligrapher: What you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean what goes on underneath is all these different ideas, thoughts, decorative images, so there’s enormous variety. But I work to a brief. I work to a brief that’s sent to me from St. Johns.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The monks at St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota are custodians of a 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition. Hand-written scripture is part of that tradition. But they switched to Gutenberg printers long ago and never looked back – not even when Donald Jackson first asked them to sponsor his $4 million idea.

BROTHER DIETRICH REINHARDT, St. John’s University: I thought, I need this like a hole in the head. I’m trying to balance the budget, trying to hire new faculty. But then I started to laugh because I thought, wouldn’t it be wondrous? It kindled all the romantic parts in my life that 30 years of monastic life still has not wiped out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many monks shared Brother Dietrich Reinhardt’s misgivings. Was this elitist? An expensive anachronism? But in the end, the concerns helped make the case for the Bible — also to shape it, says Abbott John Klassen.

ABBOT JOHN KLASSEN, St. John’s Abbey: We wanted to have a work that would really reflect our awareness of this global civilization, an awareness of the peoples of the earth and an awareness of how those stories can be texts of liberation, texts of hope, texts of meaning for peoples across the face of the earth.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In other words, a departure from the euro-centric Christian tradition. This theme is also evident in illuminations, such as this “Genealogy of Christ,” shaped like in a menorah.

DONALD JACKSON: It represents a tree of life. And within this tree of life, I’ve also used fragments of a Buddhist Mandala with cosmic symbols. I’ve also interwoven with this fragments of the DNA design, because as I did this, what came out most forcefully to me was what could have been a boring family tree, I realized was everybody’s family tree, yours and mine. We are all connected. And so at one point here, finally, I just added the name of Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham, whose son Ishmael, was the ancestor of Mohammad. So, put her name in Arabic.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Like the overall theme, the editorial process is international and inclusive. It is also painstaking.

DONALD JACKSON: I will take a picture of this, digitally, send that by computer to Minnesota from Wales, and invite comments, you know? Is this doing what you feel it ought to be doing?

SPOKESPERSON: I’m satisfied with the image itself, but not with the position or scale.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back at the abbey, the Committee on Illumination and Texts– monks, nuns and theologians– pores exhaustively over every detail.

SPOKESMAN: There’s a lot of illustration at that point, so this could probably be a t subtler pattern at this point.

SPOKESPERSON: But it needs to come to the surface so that you don’t have show-through on it.

DONALD JACKSON: I’ll take some of that onboard– some of it I don’t– and then I move on to doing the finished thing.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So, over days, even weeks, the illumination of how the disciples meet Christ on the road to Emmaus takes shape.

DONALD JACKSON: I took that and I developed it a little further, and I changed that costume. I made Christ a little bit more powerful, and I brought in decorative elements to try to suggest a movement from meeting, to going into the house, to him breaking the bread for him, and he vanished from their sight. And, so, I was using words to try to emphasize that. But in fact, what happens in the finished piece is I moved on from that and changed it quite a lot. I had the lettering on the side here in blue and the writing across here, and as I did it, I realized the writing had to be in the bottom and it had to be in gold, because the gold picks up what’s going on above here.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The text accompanying the illuminations is from the new revised standard version, which removes a lot of male-oriented language. But Abbot Klassen says the text– which is approved by most mainline churches– and especially Jackson’s illuminations — cannot be called politically correct.

ABBOT JOHN KLASSEN: They’re deliberately abstract and they’re abstract enough so that you as a person being invited into the illumination have to engage with it, and bring your own life and your own visual imagination, as well as your spiritual imagination into the illumination in order to create your own meaning and interpretation.

BROTHER DIETRICH REINHARDT: When you think of how you illustrate the exodus, the Israelites being freed from slavery, in a country here where 20% of our people here have ancestors who were slaves five or six generations ago, that has a whole different relevance. This is not a story just of sacred history in the biblical saga, but it’s something that continues to shape not only some of the deepest problems in our culture, in terms of race and ethnicity and justice, but also shaped some of the remarkable stamina and creativity of a whole people within America.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: After its completion– sometime in 2006– the St. John’s Bible is expected to go on display in a new building at the abbey. St. John’s has already raised three of the four million dollars, through corporate, foundation and individual donations. Later in the decade, reproductions will be published for consumer editions.