Illuminated Truth, Ineffable Grace
By Tom Wachunas
“…a ploughboy with the Bible would know more of God than the most learned ecclesiastic who ignored it.” -William Tyndale
EXHIBITION: Illuminating the Word: The St. John’s Bible, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014. Viewing hours and ticket information at 330-453-7666, or visit www.cantonart.org
In the 22 years I’ve been viewing exhibits at the Canton Museum of Art, none has been so personally significant and completely edifying as this one. Here is the world-premiere of a work that is a wholly – indeed holy - breathtaking aesthetic experience, transcendent like no other in its visual and conceptual scope.
The St. John’s Bible is a work of timeless monumentality, and the stunning result of an arduous process initiated in 1995 by the community of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The first words were scribed on Ash Wednesday, 2000, the last “Amen” on May 9, 2011.
Handwritten and illuminated, i.e. illustrated, using medieval materials and methods, this is the first Bible - the complete New Revised Standard Version in seven 15 ¾” by 23 ½” volumes of 1,127 pages that include more than 160 artworks - commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. The elegant, very readable calligraphy was executed on vellum (calfskin) with hand-cut feather quills and ancient, hand-ground inks. The brilliantly colored page illuminations incorporate 24-karat gold leaf, silver leaf and platinum accents.
Here in Canton is the first touring exhibit of 34 displays, showing 68 original manuscript pages, and 32 illuminations, from all seven volumes. A team of 23 professional artists and scribes, working in a scriptorium in Wales, created the actual pages under the artistic direction of renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.
Don’t be put off by the unusually dim lighting. While it certainly brings an aura of hushed solemnity to the event, the material components of the work require it, lest they become discolored under prolonged exposure to normal lighting conditions. Your eyes will quickly adjust and, just as quickly, be drawn toward another sort of light, spiritual and physical – the altogether extraordinary, alluring radiance of the pages.
A particularly arresting element here is the stylistic nature of the illuminations. This isn’t traditional religious scenery. It is rather an intensely thoughtful probing of multiculturalism through contemporary imagery, even to the point of embracing modern humanity’s strides in science and technology. Collectively, they present an ecumenical joining of Eastern and Western iconography. Yet these compelling montages are all consistent with Divine perspective and purpose as revealed in the Bible.
From Genesis, seven vertical strips represent each day of Creation. In day three, signifying the division of land from water and the appearance of vegetation, there are satellite photos of the Ganges River Delta. The creation of humankind on day six is rendered with images from Australian and African aboriginal rock paintings.
The spectacular abstract treatment of the Psalms frontispiece features superimposed digital voice prints, i.e. electronic images, of sung chants. These include men’s Gregorian Chant at St. John’s Abbey, Jewish men’s chorus recitations of Psalms, and a Native American sacred song, among others.
The interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision in Valley of the Dry Bones is a sobering and stark modern junkyard. Piles of eyeglasses recall the Holocaust, shattered windows are the ruins of terrorism, and trashed autos point to environmental corruption. Still, overarching this dark debris are interlocking rainbows at the top of the page – vibrant symbols of hope.
In the Genealogy of Christ illumination from the Gospel of Matthew, we see a tree of life, functioning as both a family tree and a menorah. Interwoven are the double helix forms of DNA and ancestral names in English, Hebrew and Arabic. At the base of the menorah is a mandala shape – common in Eastern traditions – symbolizing God’s continual presence.
And from the book of Acts, To the Ends of the Earth marks the first time a picture of earth, as seen from space, has ever appeared in a handwritten Bible.
For some viewers, the exhibit will doubtless be a desirable and rewarding destination, eliciting rightful gratitude for the power of art to re-affirm their grasp of the immutable, eternal Truth that is God. This has certainly been the case for me, and I can fully appreciate Donald Jackson’s words in describing the beginnings of this glorious journey, born out of a boyhood dream, “…The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page, is the closest I have ever come to God…”
It is my fervent hope that for many other viewers, The Saint John’s Bible may well signal the beginning of their own earnest journey toward the same experience. Just as God’s Word is to and for all humanity - past, present and future - this magnificent achievement is an inspired facilitator, and truly art for the ages.
It is both a noble service to, and blessing on, all who view it.
PHOTOS, from top: 1.Donald Jackson, Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14 NRSV Translation), 2005 - Scribe: Susan Leiper - Vellum, with ink, paint and gold, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 2. Donald Jackson, To the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8 NRSV Translation), with contributions from Andrew Jamieson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 - Scribe: Sally Mae Joseph / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 3. Donald Jackson with contributions from Chris Tomlin, 2003 / Scribe: Donald Jackson / Genesis frontispiece: Creation (Genesis1:1–2:3 NRSV Translation), Vellum, with ink, paint and gold/ Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 4. Donald Jackson, Genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17 NRSV Translation), 2002, Scribe: Donald Jackson / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN