An Illuminated Experience with Art and Scripture
Communion and study at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex will become grander in their practice with the arrival of a volume of the Saint John’s Bible.
The Saint John’s Bible is the first illuminated, handwritten print of the Holy Book to be commissioned in more than 500 years, according to Allison Fresher, a verger at the church. Illuminated versions of the New Testament were commonly created during the Medieval era, but the practice has been revived with the Saint John’s edition.
St. John’s Episcopal Church received a print edition of the sixth volume of the Bible’s Gospels and Acts on Sept. 1, and it will remain at the church until August 2023.
Monumental in size, the creation of 1,150 page, seven-volume Bible was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota in 1998, and directed by Donald Jackson, who worked with six additional calligraphers to hand write the words of the New Testament on very large cotton pages using ancient inks and quill pens.
According to Brad Neary, the Director of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program, the work was an 11-year process that realized Jackson’s dream to illuminate the Bible.
“Ink finally hit vellum starting in the spring of 2000 and then in June 2011 the process was complete. That was for the original manuscript which is at St. John’s in Minnesota,” said Neary.
The sturdiness of the pure cotton material used for the pages in the work, absent of coating and fillers, will last over 1,000 years in its lifespan, according to Neary. Italian calfskin binding the pages will last in quality, at best, four centuries, after which the cotton pages can be bound again.
St. John’s is in possession of one of the 300 printed versions of the work that have been distributed to congregational, healthcare, and academic institutions around the world.
“They had a set of goals when the Bible was created: to ignite the imagination, to glorify God’s word, to revive tradition, to discover history by creating this book to understand how centuries and centuries ago monks would've created a similar Bible,” said Fresher.
Those goals are met with grandiose illuminated works of art that are printed throughout the Italian leather-bound book, many of which attempt to bring together ancient and modern elements into depictions of Biblical events. According to Fresher, this was a way through which Jackson and his team could foster an inclusive experience when engaging in Bible study, as painting works contain visual nods to various diverse cultures, communities, and belief systems.
The first visual work in Gospels and Acts edition is a microcosm for much of the inclusive art in the volume. It depicts a menorah representing the family tree of Jesus Christ, tracing back to Abraham and Sarah. It includes the names of both men and women, significant in emphasizing the role of the latter sex in the ancient and modern world. All names on the tree have names in English and Hebrew, with the addition of the name of Hagar written in Arabic, bringing together all three major monotheistic religions. Strands of DNA lie within the borders of the menorah, representing a scientific interpretation of lineage in a religious context.
The Rector Kate Wesch of St. John’s will deliver a sermon during Communion on Sunday Sept. 11 with the theme of forgiveness inspired by the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The moralistic story in the Saint John’s work is printed with a page-wide painting illustrating the parable, including a small depiction of two gold rectangular shapes, which are meant to represent the Twin Towers.
“Because it is the anniversary of 9/11, I’m going to preach on forgiveness,” said Wesch. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how this book is so intentional, and I’ve been studying Desmond Tutu who’s written a book on forgiveness and how it’s been done in South Africa, how that whole really difficult process of forgiveness has to be done in community as well.”
The first service St. John’s held with the Bible was during an intimate Eucharist on Sept. 7 with a small group of congregants for an intimate meeting.
The congregation will incorporate the illuminated work over the next 11 months into its worship services, study sessions, and other educational forums. Guest speakers with the Heritage Program, such as artists who worked on the Bible, are also hoped to come to the congregation as well to further educate the public. According to Fresher, the church is hoping to bring their copy of Gospels and Acts to local artists and historians, and the Essex Library, and assisted living homes in the area such as the Meadows.
“We’re looking to network in our community and make it available. It’s not just for Bible studies within our own church, but it’s how we can get it out and use this,” said Wesch. “That’s the other big emphasis the church has been insistent on from the beginning: how do we take it to Essex Meadows, libraries, so that all different people in our community can interact and experience it while it’s here.”