NAPLES, Fla. – The pages are made of calfskin, the ink is 500 years old, the letters each perfectly inscribed with quills. And yet for all the antiquity the St. John’s Bible embraces, there are decidedly modern signs too – images of terrorist targets, urban apartment buildings, even cheering football fans.
This is more than just another edition of the Bible.
The text has been painstakingly handwritten and illustrated at a master calligrapher’s studio in a converted shed in Wales, a remarkable convergence of past and present that includes everything from prehistoric cave paintings to satellite images from space.
The work sends a message about the universality of faith across time. In a sense, it seeks to be all things to all people.
“This is the yearning,” explained Donald Jackson, who is the lead scribe on the project, “the voices of people in different cultures and religions, voicing their yearning for closeness to God.”
Portions of the massive seven-volume Bible – expected to cost its sponsors about $7.8 million when it’s done – are on display through next month at the Naples Museum of Art. Visitors see not only the remarkable calligraphy that seems too perfect to have come from the human hand, but the artistic interpretations of passages. They are on pages nearly 2 feet high and 16 inches wide.
They vary widely, from simple illustrations of butterflies to one-of-a-kind portrayals, such as that of the creation story, which is represented in a panel of seven side-by-side strips depicting the initial chaos of the world’s birth, the emergence of human life and the divine day of rest.
Jackson did most of the illustrations – or illuminations, as they’re called – himself. Five others are helping with much of the lettering, and nine guest artists have also contributed.
The images Jackson has chosen come from a wide variety of cultures.
In Luke, the parable of the prodigal son includes renderings of simple rectangular towers – which a reader would identify as the World Trade Center – representing the need for forgiveness and alternatives to revenge.
The story of Adam and Eve features an African man and woman, whose likenesses were influenced by photographs of Ethiopian tribespeople; they are surrounded by designs taken from objects as varied as Peruvian feather capes and Middle Eastern textiles. In a depiction of the Pentecost, there is a gold column of fire, but also simple black outlines of spectators at a college football game.
“If these words have any importance it isn’t an importance that belongs in the past,” Jackson said. “If there is any importance at all, they’re going to always be important – now, in the past and in the future.”
The Bible also aims at religious unity. In Psalms, for example, one large image is superimposed with digital voice prints – electronic images of sounds. They include not only St. John’s monks’ chants, but a sacred song of American Indians, the sound of a Jewish men’s chorus, Buddhist tantric harmonics, the Islamic call to prayer, Taoist temple music, a popular Hindu devotional and an Indian chant.
“We wanted a sense of ecumenism and sort of all of humanity seeking God as an underlying characteristic, even though it’s in a Bible that is specifically Christian,” said the Rev. Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., which commissioned the Bible.
The New Revised Standard Version translation is used because most major Christian denominations approve of it.
The undertaking is historic. While other religious traditions have maintained a custom of hand-penning their sacred texts, it has fallen out of favor in Christianity since the Middle Ages. The St. John’s Bible is considered the most ambitious undertaking of its kind in 500 years. Christopher de Hamel, a medieval manuscript scholar at Cambridge University in England, said the project is monumental in scope.
“The Bible is probably the most important text, the most widely circulated text, the most central text in Western civilization,” de Hamel said. “Whether it’s true or not true is irrelevant. And to take that great book, which has been copied by hand for two-thirds of its history, and to recreate it by hand as it was in the Middle Ages, is as thrilling as rebuilding the Parthenon using the same kind of marble or the same kind of carving, or building a new Stonehenge by dragging giant stones across the country.”
Jackson, who received a scholarship to art school at the age of 13 and taught college himself at 20, had dreamed of creating a handwritten Bible for decades before he began the project. He pitched the idea to Hollas 12 years ago, and three years later found himself signing a contract commissioning the project on behalf of the Roman Catholic order.
Aside from his responsibilities penning royal documents for the House of Lords, the 69-year-old Jackson has refused other work since beginning the Bible. The project was to be finished this year, but has fallen behind schedule and likely won’t be complete until fall 2009.
Jackson, raised a Methodist, said he has grown more spiritual as the project progressed. He first saw it as an artistic challenge; now, he feels more deeply about the book’s content, precisely how he said he hopes others will react too.
“It seems that the words have value when you go through the trouble to do it in this way,” he said.