Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (2)

This summer, I had the opportunity to spend several days at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. I went there to see the St. John’s Bible, an ongoing project to produce the first Bible in many centuries to be completely hand-written and illuminated by professional calligraphers. St John’s Abbey sponsors the project though the actual work is being carried out in Wales by a team of calligraphers led by Donald Jackson.

Four of the seven volumes have now been finished and are on sale in facsimile reproductions. The SJB’s illuminations are distinctive in content and contain a mix of styles by different artists, sometimes together in one illustration. They range from highly illustrative medleys (such as the distinctively African Garden of Eden scene) through atmospheric evocations of mood (such as the incipits for Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) to visual celebrations of textuality (such as the Ten Commandments illumination or the incipit of Matthew that casts Jesus’ genealogy in the form of a menorah). Like the text (which is modern English, the NRSV translation), the illumination art takes mostly modern form while consciously evoking many of the conventions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, such as text emphasized by color, marginal animals (often insects painted very realistically), as well as the style of the hand written letters themselves.

The original pages, however, have not yet been bound together as books. This allows their many illuminated pages to be displayed in traveling exhibitions, as well as at St. John’s. Almost a dozen pages from the newest volume, Wisdom Literature, were on display this summer. The manuscript pages are very striking—more so than the full-size reproduced facsimiles available for sale, as I was able to tell because I could compare them nearly side-by-side in this display. Displayed in museum cases, these manuscript pages work exactly like icons to draw attention to a transcendent reality—in this case, the biblical text itself. Viewing the illuminations made me refer to the text and want to re-read passages again.

St. John’s has produced a bible that combines the qualities of original art, icon and reproducible book—a form that draws attention to unique original in order to generate interest in its limitless reproductions. Its old-fashioned form—hand-written and illuminated parchment—works well to grab attention in the art museum culture of the twenty-first century.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You'll get a kick out of this. Someone forwarded an article to me about a project underway to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the New International Version Bible translation: a large RV is going across the country, driven by two young couples, soliciting people to write down one verse each of the entire NIV. The result will be a photo facsimile compilation of the original manuscript verses, making a full NIV Bible, to be published for Christmas 2009. As the people contributing will write each verse in their own handwriting twice, two actual manuscripts will exist, with one going to the Smithsonian and the other to be auctioned.

What an interesting idea! I may try to do a verse myself, just for the fun of it.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The site for the Bible Across America project is here.