Spotlight on the Saint John’s Bible

The world’s first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible since Gutenberg’s time can be found in rural Minnesota.

My alma mater, Creighton University, is home to a “Heritage Edition” of the Saint John’s Bible. The Heritage Edition is a reproduction — but not a facsimile — of the original Saint John’s Bible, which was commissioned in 1998 by Saint John’s University and now can be seen in its entirety on their campus in central Minnesota. The Order of Saint Benedict has an ancient tradition of illuminated Bibles, so their sponsorship of this work was a natural fit. References to Benedictine lore and the Rule of Saint Benedict abound throughout the book.

Art and Liturgy - Saint Johns Bible in Case at Creighton University Rare Books Room
Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible in situ at the Creighton University Rare Books Room. The case is made of wood from the SJU campus and the artist’s home in Wales, and its design matches the geometry of the Abbey Church shown above. Photo courtesy of Creighton University Archives.

Its chief aim is to be a Bible for our time, and it does this well. Passages describing God’s bounteous creation are illuminated with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The horsemen of the Apocalypse are overlaid with microscope images of ebola virus. Songs of praise are augmented with gilded digital voiceprints of Gregorian chant. Genealogical passages are interwoven with DNA double-helices.

To describe all the ins and outs of this incomprarable undertaking would be tedious for this setting, especially without the benefit of pictures, so I will just link to the Bible’s webpage and to an online exhibition from the Library of Congress.

Each page of the original required 7–10 hours of labor. The vellum, inks, bindings, and the artists themselves were painstakingly hand-selected by the artistic director and head calligrapher, Donald Jackson. The Heritage Editions are printed on paper (also carefully selected) instead of vellum, though it has been watermarked to replicate ink bleedthrough on vellum.

Online images are hard to come by without running afoul of copyright issues. So, you’re thinking, just how beautiful is this Bible?

Its creator, Donald Jackson, will be inducted into the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great, the highest earthly honor the Catholic Church can bestow upon a layman. The honor is even more rare since Jackson is a member of the Anglican church. I note here with pride that the founder of my alma mater, John A. Creighton, was also a Knight of Saint Gregory. (If any Vatican officials are reading this, please note that I would be pleased to accept knighthood in this order as well.)

If you are able, I heartily encourage you to go see the Bible in person. You can find a list of locations here. You won’t regret it!

Featured image: Saint John’s Abbey Church on the campus of Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. The church was designed by Marcel Breuer, a famed Brutalist architect. Photo by Bobak Ha’EriOwn work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6921513


Special thanks to David Crawford, Creighton University Archivist, for his assistance with this post.

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