The illumination titled “Psalms” from the St. John’s Bible. Donald Jackson

Art and the Word

By  Bridget Ker, Co-ordinator of Saint John’s Bible, Diocese of Hamilton
  • February 21, 2020

The Diocese of Hamilton is home to a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible. It is a fine art reproduction of a handwritten and hand-illuminated Bible that was created in collaboration with Saint John’s Abbey and University and celebrated British calligrapher Donald Jackson. 

Working together from 1995 to 2011, the result is a Bible that celebrates the Word of God, supports the arts, explores ancient techniques and gives voice to the voiceless. In the original Saint John’s Bible, every single word was handwritten by a professional calligrapher using a feather quill on sheets of vellum. With detailed outlines prepared by a committee at Saint John’s, a team of international artists created the 160 illuminations each featuring hand applied gold. 

In order to share The Saint John’s Bible more widely, 299 copies of the seven-volume Heritage Edition were created. They recreate the scale and beauty of the original using off-set lithography to print each page. The gold is real, just like in the original, only stamped and embossed on the cotton paper pages. The Diocese of Hamilton is home to set 132. 

The Heritage Edition lives at the Bishop Farrell Library and Archives, but it is rarely home. The diocese has a team dedicated to sharing it with as many people as possible. They visit schools, parishes, community groups and churches outside of our Catholic family, and share the Bible with as many people as possible. 

The team members are called docents, which just means that they are the very knowledgeable guides who share their love and enthusiasm with all. They don’t just show the Bible, though. The docents run programming with the Bible that allows the participant to dive deep into its creation and to take on the role of artists creating their own inspired work of art. 

An open viewing is the introductory programming that the diocese runs. A docent or a team of docents presents a volume to a group and starts a conversation. They may begin by telling the story of how it all came together. How Donald Jackson started art school at age 13, became a master calligrapher and was inspired by the Book of Kells to create an illuminated Bible for the 21st century. 

The monks of Saint John’s have their own story. Their Benedictine community was founded in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1856. As Benedictines, they read the Bible daily and have a very intimate relationship with Scripture. Jackson and the community came together in 1980 when Jackson spoke at a calligraphy conference at Saint John’s University. This started their relationship and in 1995 Jackson asked the members of the community if they wanted to work together to celebrate the Word of God with an illuminated Bible. 

After contemplation, in 1998 they agreed, with planning lasting until 2000 and the hands-on work lasting from 2000 to 2011. Once the docent starts the conversation, they step back and let the participants start to talk. They might ask, “What do you see? What does it remind you of?” They may encourage the participants to talk to each other and to ask many, many questions. 

The docents also facilitate hands-on programming, frequently in elementary and secondary schools. When we visit, we introduce the Bible, have the students spend time with a volume and then we ask them to get creative. In our Art of The Saint John’s Bible program, we ask the students to put themselves in the shoes of the artists who created the illuminations. If you were asked to create an image for the Garden of Eden, what would your garden look like? What animals are there? 

The students are delighted when the docent says yes, you can have a bunny, or an alligator, or a mantis in the Garden. For our stamping programming, students create what the artists of the Bible created: stamps. With foam and paint, the students design their own stamps or use one from the Bible as a template and make their own page. It is messy and the students love it. 

The Diocese of Hamilton also facilitates spiritual programming with The Saint John’s Bible. Trained staff members can lead participants in a Seeing the Word session, based on the concept of lectio divina or sacred reading. A passage of Scripture along with its accompanying illumination are explored through listening, meditating, seeing, praying and contemplating. 

The diocese works with a member of the Hamilton Calligraphy Guild to run the Tools of the Trade program. Here, the focus is on the material, tools and skills that were required to craft The Saint John’s Bible. The calligrapher, Jan Cegnar, invites the students to handle the tools and materials she used and shows them the end results of her hard work and years of practice. The students then make their own decorated versals. A versal is a decorated capital letter used in The Saint John’s Bible to start most of the chapters. With older students and adults, we let Jan take centre stage and have her go into greater detail about her life as a calligrapher. 

Other programs look at the inspiration behind the art in The Saint John’s Bible. In the Bugs in the Bible program the docents lead participants through the Bible to discover the insects and animals who decorate its pages. They then lead them on a scavenger hunt to find out the book, chapter and verse they accompany. In the Science and Technology program, the docents explore how art and science came together to create the Bible and inspire the images in the illuminations. 

While these are the programs that are run most frequently, the diocese has also organized unique, one-off programs to highlight The Saint John’s Bible in different contexts. In December 2017, the highlight of our programming was participating in the Kitchener-Waterloo Grand Philharmonic Choir’s presentation of Handel’s Messiah. Volumes were on stage with the choir and soloists, along with being on display in the lobby for audience members to explore. The diocese later worked with the Grand Philharmonic Choir again to celebrate final acquisition of the diocese’s set of the Heritage Edition. 

In April 2018, a full house at the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King in Hamilton listened as three choirs sang songs and hymns selected to reflect the beauty of the Bible. All volumes of The Saint John’s Bible were open, turned to pages that illuminated the voices of the choir. 

With the purpose to share the word of God as widely as possible, the Diocese of Hamilton works to ensure that The Saint John’s Bible is as accessible as possible. Are you interested in exploring The Saint John’s Bible? The Bishop Farrell Library and Archives is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Contact information can be found on the web at hamiltondiocese.com/chancellor/library/. 

For more information about the The Saint John’s Bible or to book it for your parish, school or group, visit hamiltondiocese.com/stjohnsbible.

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