The St. John’s Bible onstage at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square as the Grand Philharmonic Choir performed Handel’s Messiah. Photo courtesy Diocese of Hamilton

St. John's Bible illuminates the Word of God

  • March 23, 2018

Kids like picture books. So why should children’s Bibles be any different?

The Diocese of Hamilton came to that realization when it acquired a copy of the St. John’s Bible, a Catholic Bible with intricate illustrations and calligraphy. In the two years that Bishop Douglas Crosby has been part of the St. John’s Bible Project, the diocese’s copy has been displayed in countless schools and parishes.

“They (students) are amazed by what they see,” said Christina Ronzio, Director of the Liturgy Office for the Diocese of Hamilton. “One of the goals of the St. John’s Bible is to ignite the spiritual imagination. When students interact with the text and illuminations, they begin to think— ‘What does this mean about God and who I am as a child of God?’ ”

The illustrated Bible was commissioned in 1970 by Benedictine monks in Wales but the first book took more than four decades to complete.  Hand crafted by British calligrapher Donald Jackson in partnership with Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and a team of experts, the massive book is bound in seven volumes. In total, it measures just over 90 x 60 centimetres (three by two feet), with 1,150 pages and 160 illuminations. 

It is the first complete Bible to be handwritten and illuminated in the past 500 years, according to the diocese’s website. The diocese has acquired one of 299 reproductions circulating around the world.

“If you think about the Bible you have on your bookshelf, it’s a personal sized copy because it is for individual use,” said Ronzio. “The sheer size of this volume symbolizes that it belongs to all of us. It’s for the community and for the world.”

Crosby did not want the Bible to gather dust behind plated glass. It has travelled across Southern Ontario and has been viewed by many schools, parishes and community groups. The diocese has also partnered with the Hamilton Calligraphy Guild to conduct a workshop called Tools of the Trade where participants learn about the Bible and get to practise calligraphy skills.

Last Lenten season, it visited St. Mary Parish in Brantford, Ont., where children took a particular interest in it.

“Children, for the most part, are not particularly keen on reading the Bible, but this was an exception,” said Fr. Lukas Kopaniak, St. Mary pastor. “They were fascinated. They were asking questions. It made it a very interactive experience. The children were by far the most active participants.”

Last November, the Bible was taken to Kitchener, Ont., where it visited St. Anthony Daniel Parish and several Catholic elementary schools.

“All Grade 4 and 7 students had the opportunity to interact with it,” said Fr. Allen Varlaki, pastor at St. Anthony Daniel. “The kids were amazed. They were really taken with the artwork, which ultimately grew into the text.”

The Bible also graced the Centre in the Square, Kitchener-Waterloo’s largest performing arts centre, where it was a part of the Grand Philharmonic Choir’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. 

“It has been a way for us to reach out and build community for the diocese,” said Ronzio. “At the concert, we animated some of the illustrations and had them illuminated on a screen to coincide with the music that was being performed. That night, over 1,600 people saw those illuminations.” 

“The artwork touches on important moral and ethical issues like ecology and equality,” said Varlaki. “The art draws them into the text itself. It’s incredible and I think that was the intention of those who created it.”

Kopaniak said the artistic Bible “connects the Word of God to our current lives.” 

“One of the illuminations connected a scene in the Bible to 9/11,” he said. “That touched a lot of people. It was a wonderful experience and a great privilege to have this Bible in our parish.” 

Bookings for school, community and parish groups can be arranged through the Diocese of Hamilton ( 

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