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Rome Notes: A Modern Manuscript -- and an Ancient Church

6/4/2004 - 5:00 AM PST

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Benedictine Bible Blends the Past and Present

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 4, 2004 (Zenit - As the 21st century marvels ever more at what man can achieve with machines, last week a delegation from Minnesota made everyone wonder at what man can do with his hands.

At the Wednesday audience of May 26, the St. John Bible Society presented John Paul II a full-size reproduction of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (24.5 inches by 16 inches, which makes for a 3-foot span when the book is open) from the first handwritten illustrated Bible to be produced in 500 years. This presentation marked the second stage of a project that has been under way since 1998.

St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, and St. John's University, founded in 1857 by the abbey, commissioned calligrapher Donald Jackson, former scribe to Queen Elizabeth II, to produce the St. John's Bible, a manuscript using the traditional quills, vellum, inks and metals that were used throughout the Middle Ages. It is slated for completion in 2007.

At the same time, the St. John's Bible presents a modern twist. Written in English, the Bible has a contemporary style, incorporates images from Eastern and Western Christian traditions and features flora and fauna indigenous to the region of Minnesota.

The 80-person delegation was headed by the abbot of St. John's, Father John Klassen; the president of St. John's University, Brother Dietrich Reinhart; and the calligrapher, Jackson. Earlier in the day, they met with Cardinal Pio Laghi who assisted in arrangements to present the Gospel to the Holy Father.

After the audience, the group held a press conference at the Russian Ecumenical Center in Borgo Pio, a district close to the Vatican.

Father Klassen opened the presentation by summing up the past/present nature of the Bible project. "Quills and e-mails, faxes and ink, illumination and digital images make this a Bible for the 21st century," he said.

Reminding the assembly of the great Benedictine tradition of preserving and transmitting knowledge and culture, he stated the aim of the Bible was to "illuminate God's Word, revive an ancient monastic tradition and create a contemporary work of art."

They certainly found a great contemporary artist. Donald Jackson got up with a flourish and explained the expected as well as unforeseen complexities that arose from such an ambitious project.

One of the difficulties stemmed from handwriting the text in English without a prototype to gauge the number of words per line (this was solved through the use of computers, which allowed them to test the format before they started writing). Another problem was the calligraphic script, which needed to evoke the ancient tradition but also be legible for a modern audience. To surmount this hurdle, Jackson developed his own script for the project.

An unexpected obstacle arose trying to find the proper quill for the opus. Quill pens were chosen not merely to emulate the practice of the medieval monks, but because "quill pens most reflect emotion in writing," said Jackson, punctuating his remarks with eloquent hand gestures. "They are sensitive tools."

A team of theologians have assisted Jackson in this endeavor, selecting the biblical scenes to be illustrated and providing commentary and observations on the texts.

Jackson spoke humorously of the difficulties of assembling a team of calligraphers in his scriptorium in Wales and the stamina required to produce such a laborious work. Apparently, defections from the project have not been unusual. "One calligrapher left for lunch one day and never came back," leaving behind work, tools and paycheck, Jackson noted.

He also spoke of providence and human error and how in some pages a mistake can become an occasion for true artistic ingenuity. In the case of the page of the "Sower and the Seed" a line was left out of the text. Jackson added the line at the bottom of the page and then created a trail up the page to a little bird indicating the correct place.

Jackson claims to be able to tell whether his calligraphers are happy or sad simply by looking at their work. I asked Jackson whether the scribes in the Middle Ages were happy and how could one tell.

He described it as a "connection between the artist and the work" where the way the letters are formed and flow indicates whether the scribe is completely caught up in the work. This oneness with the task makes scribes "happy."

I wondered how many other insights into the faraway world of medieval manuscripts Jackson had gleaned during this process.

"Number one, that you can only sit on your rear for so long and keep concentration!" he said, laughing. "Scribes could work for five or five-and-a-half hours, max." Then he grew more serious ...

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