First Handwritten, Illuminated 1,150-Page Bible Finally Complete

After a 15-year process, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery is finally complete for viewing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Commissioned by monks at St. John’s Abbey and University in 1998 to celebrate the beginning of a new millennium, The Saint John’s Bible is the first Bible of its kind in the more than 500 years since the invention of the printing press.

“The Saint John’s Bible has been a labor of love,” the Rev. Robert Koopmann, president of St. John’s University and Abbey, said at a media-only event, according to USA Today.

The large undertaking required collaboration between a team of scriptural scholars, theologians, artists and calligraphers under the supervision of artistic director and master calligrapher Donald Jackson, whose lifelong dream was to create an illuminated Bible.

“The Bible is the calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge (our Sistine Chapel), a daunting task,” the website quoted Jackson, a senior scribe to Queen Elizabeth II. “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.”

Divided into seven volumes, the Bible measures 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide when open, and is made of calfskin vellum soaked in lime, then dried, scraped, and sanded smooth.

Hand-cut quills from goose, swan, and turkey feathers were used to illustrate and pen the entire book, with gold and platinum leaf and hand-ground pigments. The script is written in lamp black ink from the 19th-century Chinese ink sticks. Computers helped to plan the layout of the Bible and define line breaks for the text.

The New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible was also employed because its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, was officially authorized for use by most Christian churches, whether Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

“I believe The Saint John’s Bible is a gift for the world, and that it will be shared, beginning with the exhibition, here,” St. John’s Abbot John Klassen said at the media-only event.

“We took on this challenge so that we could focus on the word of God, to renew interest in the calligraphic arts, to create a great work of art. We believe that we have met these goals – and then some,” Klassen said.

He added that Pope Benedict XVI declared the Bible “a work for eternity.”

The St. John’s Bible features more than 1,150 pages of text and 160 illuminations from Genesis to Revelations. The first volume of the Bible, containing the Gospels and Acts, was completed in 2002.

Letters and Revelation, the last and final volume, was finished this May and was written and drawn exclusively by Jackson himself. It will be on display Friday through Nov. 13.

Klassen believes the entire project cost nearly $8 million, paid for by donations throughout the years, according to The Associated Press. “It has far surpassed what any of us ever imagined in our most optimum moments.”

“The Saint John’s Bible attempts to invite people in to make meaning with others through these visual images and to reinforce the fact that the Bible is communal,” Tim Ternes, director of project said, as quoted by USA Today.

Reproductions were also created with the help of Liturgical Press and fine art printers to make the Bible more readily accessible.

The complete text and illuminations is offered in a 9 ¾-inch by 15-inch hardcover format. Any page of The Saint John’s Bible can also be ordered as a fine print.

Additionally, The Heritage Edition is a full-size, museum-quality reproduction for collectors and institutions, costing $140,000 for a complete set.

Among their goals, the artists and scholars involved in the immense project sought to ignite spiritual imagination throughout the world, glorify God’s Word, revive tradition and help foster the arts.

“If the presence of The Saint John’s Bible causes us to pause and remind ourselves of a life beyond contemporary politics and the daily frenzy of the world, then it will meet a universal need,” the makers shared on the official site.

“The Saint John’s Bible has been called by the Smithsonian magazine one of the most extraordinary undertakings of our time,” Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts said at the opening. “It represents an unparalleled artistic achievement in our lifetime and is a major contribution to the book arts, so we’re very proud to be able to unveil the final pages.”

Touring exhibitions will be available throughout the United States.

Forty-four original pages from The Saint John’s Bible Wisdom Books and Prophets volume will be displayed at the New Mexico History Museum Oct. 21 through April 7, 2012.

Print exhibitions will also be featured in Colorado, California, Indiana, Ohio and other select states.

For a list of exhibitions and information on the project, go to here.