Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles and other books were copied and illuminated (or illustrated) by hand. Practiced by educated monks, and later by secular artists, the European tradition of handwritten, illuminated Bibles was a beautiful and storied craft that all but vanished in the 15th century.
Five hundred years later, the tradition has been brought back to life by St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., which imagined a brand-new, fully handwritten and illustrated Bible to coincide with the monastery's 150th anniversary.
Colorado College and Benet Hill Monastery have arranged to bring touring reproductions from this exquisite Bible to CC's Coburn Gallery in the form of 17 large-format prints.
The Bible features 160 illuminations that vary from Renaissance to modern in style and depict both traditional and modern themes, from religious symbols and wildlife to the World Trade Center and DNA. In keeping with the illuminated tradition, the Bible is written with the finest inks and quill pens, accented with gold leaf, and the pages are made of vellum — calfskin parchment (explore the Bible at saintjohnsbible.org/see/explore.htm).
This Bible's story began in 1995, when the abbey partnered with England's official scribe and master calligrapher, Donald Jackson, who had expressed interest in creating a Bible long before.
After correspondence and planning across the Atlantic, the seven-volume St. John's Bible was officially commissioned in 1998 and required 13 years and more than $4 million in private donations to complete.
Sister Rose Ann Barmann has been with Benet Hill Monastery for 50 years and was highly involved in getting the prints to Benet Hill and Colorado College. She says the Bible and its images can reignite people's passion for the word of God.
"It's been a really very inspiring spiritual experience of people revisiting the scriptures of the Bible and seeing how the word of God can be expressed today through illuminations and relate to our time in the 21st century."
Carol Neel, a CC history professor and manuscript historian who studied 12th century monastic spirituality for two years at St. John's Abbey's library, says that the Bible should be seen as more than just a work for Christians. It can be meaningful to Jews, Muslims and those interested in the Bible for its historical and artistic elements.
"It's an imaginative act, which is a very courageous act," says Neel.
"It's done for people to newly consider the handwritten words of the Bible, rendered in a particularly beautiful way, and to raise their awareness not only of those texts, but also of the power of the book and European history and in moral history, really."