Assembly 2017

Visio Divina and The Saint John’s Bible: A General Assembly Reflection

By Mary Jo Dailey

My son said, “So, somebody copied the Bible and drew pictures.  Big deal.”

Big deal indeed.

The Bible

In 1988, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned Donald Jackson, calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth II, to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. This work of art unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium. Biblical scholars from the university in Central Minnesota worked with Jackson and a team of artists to produce the volumes using techniques from the middle ages combined with the information and scholarship of the 21st century.

It holds the distinction of being the first handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey since the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago. Each volume is two feet tall by three feet wide and weighs 20 pounds each. The intricate combination of scripture and art has been called “one of the extraordinary undertakings of our time,” by Smithsonian Magazine.

The pages of The Saint John’s Bible are made of calfskin vellum. The skins are soaked in lime, dried, scraped or “scrutched,” and sanded smooth. All the script is written using quills hand-cut by the scribes. The script is written in lamp black ink from nineteenth-century Chinese ink sticks.

Gold leaf makes the manuscript truly illuminated. Using the moisture of breath imparted through a bamboo tube, the artist activates the glue binding agent in gesso until it bonds with the gold leaf. Burnishing tools and brushes finish the gilded image. Stencils and stamps are used to apply paint and gold powder throughout, creating a rich visual vocabulary.

Visio Divina

You may be familiar with the practice of Lectio Divina, divine reading, a Benedictine practice of meditating on scripture as the living Word of God and allowing God to speak as you listen to the reading. Visio Divina, divine seeing, is a combination of reading and meditating on the word with the added visual experience of illuminated scripture.

Illumination is not synonymous with illustration. The illuminations of the St. John’s Bible are not pictures depicting a story, but images expressing the meaning of scripture.  After meditating on the scripture, the viewer is invited to share what they see in the image – to see, not only with their eyes, but with their minds and hearts.

You have the opportunity to see a volume of the Bible at CNU’s exhibit in the Gathering Place, or learn more at:

Mary Jo Dailey is a student at BTSR and intern for CBF Virginia. She and her husband, Tom, live in Richmond where they spend their spare time spoiling their grandson, Everett.

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