Medieval look to a 21st-century Bible

At a time when books can be written and distributed to millions by high-speed computer, there is no earthly reason why anyone would need to spend $5.5 million to create an illuminated manuscript of the Catholic Bible, featuring calligraphy applied by hand on calfskin parchment and other bookmaking methods dating back to the Middle Ages.

And yet, that may be exactly why such a project was launched in 2000 by monks from St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. They're not doing it because they have to, but because they want to, for the glory of God and the enrichment of those who view the work.


An exhibit opening today at the Walters Art Museum tells the story of this 10-year effort to create the first handwritten, illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery since the advent of the printing press more than 500 years ago.

The St. John's Bible: A Modern Vision Through Medieval Methods presents 44 pages from two volumes of the monks' seven-volume Bible, scheduled for completion in 2010. This large-scale manuscript, about 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall when open, is being created in Wales for the monks under the direction of David Jackson, master calligrapher and senior scribe to Queen Elizabeth II. It has already been hailed as a masterpiece of calligraphy and bookmaking, especially for the innovative way in which images and text are combined. The Walters' exhibit features original folios from the Books of Wisdom, on display for the first time outside the St. John's campus, and the Books of Prophets.


Although portions of the manuscript have been displayed before, the Walters' exhibit is different from any previous showing because it puts the new Bible in a historical and global context for the first time, rather than showing it in isolation.

The Walters has one of the world's finest collections of illuminated manuscripts, including thousands of books from Europe, Asia and Africa. Co-curators Kathryn Gerry and Ben Tilghman, both from the Walters staff, have designed an exhibit in which pages from the St. John's Bible are interspersed with 49 historic manuscripts and rare books from the museum's collection, including a 17th-century Torah scroll, a 15th-century Koran and "The Elephant Book," an accordion-fold manuscript from Thailand.

The result is a scholarly and illuminating overview of how time-honored traditions of bookmaking are being carried into the 21st century. By comparing the new manuscript with those that have come before, visitors will see how Jackson and his colleagues have embraced many of the methods and materials employed by their predecessors. For instance, Jackson's team of calligraphers is using quills made from turkey, swan and goose feathers, and natural paints and inks, on carefully selected calfskin vellum.

At the same time, they have interpreted the scripture from a contemporary perspective. The text is based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a modern English translation. It's written in a new script that St. John's has dubbed "Jacksonian," featuring a look that is traditional and in keeping with the Bible's message yet easier on the eyes than much of the lettering in older manuscripts.

The images go even further to bring the Bible into the 21st century. Although they couldn't deviate from the basic text, since they are working with an established translation, the artists wanted to illustrate the manuscript with images that would make it more relevant to 21st-century viewers, and in some cases that meant including references to events or subjects that took place or existed long after the words were written. In an illustration entitled "The Valley of Dry Bones," for example, the artist incorporated an image of eyeglasses from victims of a Hitler-era concentration camp and skulls from the killing fields of Cambodia. Another illustration, entitled "Ecclesiastes Frontispiece," depicts butterflies native to Minnesota, the abbey's home state. These and other references help bring the manuscript to life and draw in present-day viewers. In some cases, they also make for striking images that practically leap off the page.

By presenting pages from the new Bible in juxtaposition with illuminated volumes from the past, the Walters exhibit makes it easy to see both the difficulty of creating a manuscript today with medieval methods and the value it will have for future generations. In an era when many people have grown accustomed to communicating with e-mail and text messages, there may not be as much demand for the printed word. But the world is clearly richer because of efforts such as this.

if you go

The St. John's Bible: A Modern Vision Through Medieval Methods opens today and runs through May 24 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $4 to $8; admission to the Walters' permanent collection is free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to

For the record

An article in Sunday's You and Arts & Entertainment section misstated the name of the master calligrapher directing the St. John's Bible project featured in a Walters Art Museum exhibit. He is Donald Jackson.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.