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 Illuminating the Bible

Deborah Whiteman, head of Archives and Special Collections in the University Library, is anxiously awaiting the publication of the latest volume of a new edition of the most popular book ever written. No, not a remake of Harry Potter, but rather, the handwritten, lavishly hand-illuminated New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, known as The Saint John’s Bible. “It’s written in calligraphic script, but it’s also illuminated in the same way that a 12th century medieval manuscript would have been illuminated; the initial letters are large, brilliantly colored and frequently decorated in gold,” Whiteman explains. “There are also full-page colored illuminations of key points in the text—such as Creation, the Fall, and the Ten Commandments. That was typical of large 12th century bibles as well.”

Though she has not yet seen the original manuscript (which is at St. John’s University, in Minnesota), Whiteman is able to view SCU’s fine art reproduction of The Saint John’s Bible, known as the “Heritage Edition,” every day at work since it is on public display in her department in the southeast corner of the Learning Commons. Santa Clara’s set of The Saint John’s Bible is one of only 299 such copies. Thanks to a generous donor, the University currently has four of the seven volumes of the massive tomes. The University will acquire the remaining three as they become available. The open book measures a sizable two feet by three feet. “The Heritage Edition has been produced with the same care and attention that goes into a fine press book and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Whiteman.

The Saint John’s Bible was commissioned by the Benedictine monastery at Saint John’s Abbey and University in 1998. The calligraphy and illuminations have been executed by a team of scribes, headed by world-renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson. The Bible is set for completion in May 2011 with the publication of the final volume, Letters and Revelation. The one-of-a-kind original is the work of a dozen scribes writing with turkey, goose, and swan quills on calfskin vellum using natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments, and gold and silver leaf. SCU’s copy, an exact replica, was reproduced digitally using a special high-tech Heidelberg press. The gold and silver foil were laid on afterwards using a technique that closely matches the hand-embossing used by Jackson on the original leaves. “The pages literally sparkle,” Whiteman says.

Though this version of the Word of God may be modeled on medieval works, it is truly a Bible for the 21st century. Whiteman says: “A very contemporary view has been taken in the illuminations. For example, Adam and Eve are presented as Ethiopian. The imagery is taken from Navajo weaving basket designs, Persian rugs, Turkish architecture, Christian symbolism, Buddhism, modern science—everything.”

Whiteman urges faculty, staff, students, and the general public to come see the Bible for themselves. The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage Edition, is currently the centerpiece of the exhibition, Scribes, Saints & Scholars: The Bible, 1150–2010, on display through January 2011, in the Third Floor Gallery of the Learning Commons. The Prophets volume is featured in this show. And if visitors walk next door to the Department of Archives & Special Collections (adjacent to the Gallery), they will see yet another volume of the Bible. The Saint John’s Bible will be on permanent display here, housed in a specially made case. One volume will always be open, resting on a large glass-protected lectern. A Special Collections staff member turns the page every day. The other volumes rest in drawers underneath. “We frequently take them out for people to look at,” Whiteman says. “The illustrations are incredibly powerful. People react to them. We’d really like people to feel that they can come here and use these special acquisitions. They’re here for them.”

Visit the website for more information about The Saint John’s Bible.

Visit SCU’s website for more information about the Archives & Special Collections.


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