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Divine designs

Pages from a modern manuscript Bible merge ancient artistry and modern language in an ecumenical expression of praise.

By Lennie Bennett
Published March 27, 2007


NAPLES -- With the swift turn of a heavy handle pressing inked metal letters into sheets of paper, Johannes Gutenberg changed the course of western civilization. In the mid 1400s, his mass-produced Bible sold out faster than the newest Harry Potter novel, setting in motion a revolution that would make the printed word available to the masses.

And, however unwittingly, he also spelled the end of hand-lettered sacred texts, which had been the province only of churches and wealthy nobles.

The wide availability of books was a great gift. But lost along the way was a beautiful art form.

That tradition has been revived in a remarkable project: the first Bible in 500 years that is completely handwritten and illustrated. Commissioned by Saint John's Abbey and University in Minnesota, pages from it are on view at the Naples Museum of Art, its only Florida tour stop. Because the Bible is still unbound, this is probably the only opportunity to see so many of the pages about 50 at one time.

The exhibition is definitely worth the drive. (Plan on about 2 1/2 hours from downtown St. Petersburg.) The million-dollar project began in 2000 and is near its 2008 completion. At that point, the pages will be bound in seven large volumes and will rest in the university's library. The exhibition's last day at the Naples Museum is April 7.

Donald Jackson, one of the world's most famous calligraphers and illuminators, is the project's artistic director. From his studio in a small Welsh village, he oversees a team of scribes and artists who use quills to apply antique inks, hand-ground pigments and gold leaf on oversize sheets of calfskin vellum in the ancient techniques of calligraphy and illumination (a word used to describe the illustrations in medieval manuscripts, probably coming from the shiny gold leaf often used).

The results are stunning. The New Revised Standard Version text is written in English, in a script Jackson developed for this Bible, accompanied by an illumination on most pages.

Theologians and scholars at Saint John's worked with the artists to choose which specific biblical passages to illustrate and how they should be interpreted. After fidelity to the text, the most important consideration was that this Bible be ecumenical, cutting across cultures, denominations and religions.

Its brilliant collage of illustrations are images pulled from around the world, bridging the past and the present, looking to the future.

The illumination in Genesis to accompany the account of God's creation of the Earth and mankind, for example, is a series of seven strips representing the seven days described in the text. They show a progression from chaos - dramatic dashes of color against a black background - to the final day of rest, a serene and meditative panel in gold paint and leaf.

Gold is used in every illumination to convey the presence of the divine spirit. So a thin gold line near the border of the chaos panel illustrates the moment in the Bible where God declared, "Let there be light." A contemporary element is the satellite photo of the Ganges river and valley in India reproduced in the strip for the third day, in which God created land masses. Man and woman in the sixth-day panel are pictured as silhouettes that resemble those in ancient cave drawings. A snake slithers at its bottom, prefiguring their fall from grace.

The illumination for the Gospel passage relating Jesus' miracle of the loaves and fishes has a lacy pattern dancing across the page to suggest baskets of food multiplying at an uncountable rate. The design is based on those used by the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest.

Many of the figures in the illuminations emulate Gothic iconography. But Adam and Eve are depicted as Africans, framed with a stylized border inspired by ancient textiles and a modern Peruvian cape. Another page incorporates figures taken from photographs of contemporary men and women.

The journeys of Paul in Acts are gathered together by a dense compression of buildings that span centuries, ranging from a Manhattan apartment to a Byzantine cathedral, making the larger point that his proselytizing continues to have a wide reach.

Only in Psalms is the art completely abstract, complementing the musical basis of its poetry. Small, jagged lines weave around the words: digital voice prints taken from Gregorian chants, American Indian sacred songs, a Jewish men's chorus, Buddhist tantric harmonies, an Islamic call to prayer, Taoist temple music, a Hindu bhajan and an Indian Sufi chant. Small squares of burnished gold leaf float like leaves along the lines, symbols of a collective search for faith.

These are only a few of the mind-boggling references incorporated into this glorious book.

Jackson relates that this leviathan project began with a casual conversation over a bottle of wine shared with one of the Benedictine leaders at Saint John's Abbey. That simple communion has produced a larger one that's a powerful testament of faith in its many forms.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

 

IF YOU GO

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John's Bible

At the Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples, through April 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. $8 adults; $4 students. Docent tours are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (239) 597-1111 or www.thephil.org.

ON TAMPABAY.COM: Video of Donald Jackson working on the Saint John's Bible. tampabay.com/links.

SUNDAY IN LATITUDES: A review of another show at the Naples museum: "Impressions: Americans in France, 1860-1930" and "Claude Monet: Giverny and the North of France."