Commissioned 25 years ago in 1998 and completed in 2011, the Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible to be produced in more than 500 years. A collaboration between St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and Donald Jackson, calligrapher to the late Queen Elizabeth II, the 7-volume, 1,150-page Bible was crafted by Jackson and a team of calligraphers on calfskin vellum using turkey, goose, and swan quills and handmade inks.
The Heritage Edition is a fine arts edition of the original manuscript. It is printed on cotton pages specifically designed to mimic the weight and feel of the original vellum, embossed with gold and silver, and hand-bound in Italian calfskin leather.
Donald Jackson approved each individual page before printing. He signed and approved each volume of the Heritage edition, which reproduces the original Saint John’s Bible to the point of copying the “bleed-through” of the full-page color illuminations so that hints of color can be seen “behind” the text on the other side of the page.
The Heritage Edition volume at Pax Christi contains the New Testament’s four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and the Biblical book of Acts. It arrived at the church in November 2022 and is scheduled to remain through mid-November 2023. The church also received digital images of illuminations and other resources along with the book, including six framed prints.
A total of 299 seven-volume sets of the Heritage Edition were produced; while some are still touring, over 100 of them have been purchased by churches and institutions like Yale University, the Mayo Clinic, and Australian Catholic University, and now have permanent homes.
During the St. John’s Heritage Bible’s time in Eden Prairie, according to parish director Carol Bishop, Pax Christi is not only using the Bible and accompanying resources in worship services and to create decorative seasonal banners, but also planning events around the Bible and making it available to the community.
Creativity, modern sensibilities in illustrations
A January World Religion Day event used an illustration from the book of Psalms as inspiration: the Bible’s artists recreated the wave patterns from voice recordings of St. John’s monks doing chant in gold ink horizontally across the pages of Psalms; vertically, in blue ink, they included voice prints of chants or sung prayer from other groups.
“There’s Islamic call to prayer in here and there’s Jewish chant in here. There’s Buddhist chant in here, indigenous peoples, just a lot of different kinds of prayer from different faith backgrounds. And I just love that,” Bishop said.
At the January event, she said, “We brought in a bunch of groups that participated. There was an Imam, so an Islamic representation, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Native American. And then there was a Mormon group, a Methodist group, a Lutheran group, plus Pax Christi, and each group did their own kind of song prayer. It was beautiful.”
This past winter, the church also did four weeks of discussions of illuminations for the Southwest Grief Coalition.
“We tried to pick themes that we thought related to grief and loss and tied them to these illuminations,” Bishop said. For instance, an illumination depicting Jesus calming a storm at sea related to the turbulence of grief, Bishop said. An illumination for the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead depicts Lazarus sitting in his tomb surrounded by angels, and the grief coalition talked about such things as “how is your grief like a tomb? Or who are the angels in your life that are walking with you on this journey?” Bishop said.
The illustrations of the St. John’s Bible display modern sensibilities and creativity, Bishop said, with an image of hell depicted as a microscopic view of the AIDS virus, the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew presented as a menorah in recognition of his Jewish heritage, and illustrations of plants and birds depicting species native to Minnesota.
“One of the biggest things that they had to determine in creating this Bible was ‘What’s God gonna look like?’” Bishop said. “If you look at a lot of different historical images of God, they’re all sort of the guy in the gray beard up on the cloud. They wanted it to be something that everyone could relate to, and that nobody would get angry about. So they ultimately picked gold, because of its reflective qualities: we’re made in the image and likeness of God.”
The director of the Heritage Bible visited Pax Christi and provided training to the church’s docents and others interested in the meanings and inspirations behind the images, “although we don’t usually want to explain it to them right away,” Bishop said. “We want to be just, ‘what do you see here?’”
“It’s really open to the community,” Bishop said. The gallery room where the Bible is displayed when not being used in worship is open most days. Docents are scheduled to be on hand to answer questions three times a week, and those wanting to arrange group visits can call the church at 952-941-3150 to make arrangements.
Beginning May 31 through early September, Pax will be conducting weekly Visio Divina (Latin for “sacred vision”) sessions on Wednesday evenings.
“We’re going to take 13 different illuminations, and we’re going to read the scripture from it, then look at the image and talk about what we see how is this speaking to us, and just have conversation together around it,” Bishop said. “That’s also open to anybody who would want to be here.”
We offer several ways for our readers to provide feedback. Your comments are welcome on our social media posts (Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, and LinkedIn). We also encourage Letters to the Editor; submission guidelines can be found on our Contact Us page. If you believe this story has an error or you would like to get in touch with the author, please connect with us.