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Illuminations in the St. John’s Bible use art to inspire religious imagination. In the book of Genesis, above, the seven days of creation are depicted in columns, with images drawn from satellite pictures of the Ganges River Valley and photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in outer space. Golden flecks represent God’s presence.
St. John’s Bible unveiled

Dr. Robert B. O’Connor of St. Mary’s University’s theology department points out some of the intricate details of the hand-treated illuminations found in one of the seven volumes of the St. John’s Bible Heritage Edition.

By Carol Baass Sowa
Today's Catholic

SAN ANTONIO • St. Mary’s University is set to unveil a rare acquisition on Oct. 9 that will be the first in Texas — a full-size Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible, the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in more than 550 years.

St. Mary’s seven-volume set is No. 69 of a limited edition of 299 created from the original Bible which took 13 years to produce by a team of artists and calligraphers using quill pens and hand-ground inks on calfskin vellum. It uses the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition translation. Each of the magnificent illuminations in the Heritage Edition is hand-treated, with gold leaf applied by hand. Like the original, the reproduction’s pages measure 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide when open.

A gift from John and Susan Morrison of Minnesota, longtime friends of St. Mary’s President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., this fine art reproduction is valued at $150,000.

Mengler noted that the university’s goal was to inspire St. Mary’s students to understand and experience Scriptures. “We have acquired this not only for our use at St. Mary’s University,” he added, “but for the wider community in the archdiocese, San Antonio and beyond.” This will be accomplished through a series of programs, accompanied by display of the volumes, to take place on campus as well as throughout the archdiocese.

Robert B. O’Connor, Ph.D., of St. Mary’s theology department, who was involved in the acquisition, notes the fusing of religion and science in the St. John’s Bible’s incredible illuminations, which blend traditional medieval and Byzantine artwork with modern and even post-modern designs. Illustrating familiar stories and figures from the Bible are images derived from the Hubble Space Telescope, satellite photography of earth, digital voice prints of music from various cultures and religions, and thought provoking modern elements.

Look closely at the detailed pictures and you will find aboriginal cave art, a Peruvian feather cape and geometric designs based on Native American Anasazi basketry. Patterns of the DNA double helix are woven into Jesus’ menorah-shaped family tree, while representations of the World Trade Center’s towers illustrate the message of the need for forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son. The Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel leads to new reflections with imagery drawn from modern genocides such as the Holocaust, Rwanda and Cambodia.

“I think one of the achievements of this Bible,” says Mengler, “is that it leads one to reflect on a particular passage and it does it with all the senses.” This is accomplished through both imagery and words, adds O’Connor. “The hope is,” he explains, “that as one gets into reflecting upon the image, that one reflects more deeply on the meaning of the words.”

Detailed replicas of Minnesota flora and fauna are also included, a nod to the St. John Bible’s commissioning by St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., though the majority of actual work took place in Wales, under the direction of artist Donald Jackson, calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth.

Like their medieval predecessors, the St. John’s calligraphers, on a few occasions, discovered a line of the arduously copied text had been left out and resolved this in the age-old fashion. For example, a little bird has been drawn into the margin, pulling a string encircling the missing words as if bringing them to their proper place.

Other artistic details include no two decorative drop-caps being identical (“like snowflakes,” notes O’Connor) and the names in the illustration of Jesus’ family tree being written in native Hebrew, while the name of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, the patriarch of the Muslim faith, is penned in Arabic as well. God is depicted in amorphous gold shapes — sometimes as a continuous golden line throughout an illustration.

O’Connor had broached the subject of acquiring the St. John’s Bible in an e-mail to Mengler shortly before his assuming the office of the presidency at St. Mary’s in June 2012.

“Through a series of conversations, over the course of many months,” says Mengler, “we developed the idea that we would acquire this (the St. John’s Bible) for the benefit especially of our students and of the faculty and staff at St. Mary’s University, but also, importantly, for the people of faith of this community.”

The plan to develop the resources for an ongoing lecture and program series, open to the community, was also discussed, for which some funds have already been raised — enough to launch a continuing scriptural series that will be interdisciplinary and ecumenical. For this, Mengler envisions bringing in art historians, medieval historians, philosophers and musical performances that are scriptural in focus.

This is tied in with plans for the establishment of a Center for Catholic Studies at St. Mary’s, which will engage in coursework and research promoting dialogue and understanding of Catholicism as well as religion and cultures in general.

Creating the St. John’s Bible was “a natural” for St. John’s Abbey, notes O’Connor, as it was the Benedictines in the early Middle Ages who did the copying of manuscripts, thus preserving many that otherwise would have been lost to history.

The goals of St. John’s Abbey and University in creating this special Bible were very similar to those of St. Mary’s University Mengler relates: to glorify God’s word, be voice to the unprivileged, ignite the imagination, revive tradition, discover history and foster the arts.
Mengler points out that these six goals can be summed up by the word “evangelization,” so are hand-in-glove with the archdiocese’ New Evangelization plan under Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS.

“The St. John’s Bible Heritage Edition is a truly limitless treasure and it will help people to experience the richness of God’s Word among us,” said Archbishop Gustavo. “I thank St. Mary’s University and its generous benefactors who were instrumental in bringing this inspiring artistic and spiritual work to San Antonio. I know that the St. John’s Bible will be a true source of grace for the many it will touch.”

St. Mary’s University’s Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible will be introduced to the community on Oct. 9 in Conference Room A of St. Mary’s University Center. There will be a viewing session at 6 p.m. and a presentation at 7 p.m. by Father Eric Hollas, OSB, Senior Associate for Arts & Cultural Affairs at St. John’s University, on “The Word of God Alive: The Making of the St. John’s Bible.” A reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.


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