Baylor University has facsimiles of ancient illuminated Bibles more than a thousand years old in its libraries, but it is an 8-year-old newcomer turning heads as viewers turn its oversized pages.
A Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible, one of 299 copies of the original, is getting increased collegiate and community viewing after Baylor bought its copy in February. Waco’s Central Presbyterian Church, 9191 Woodway Drive, is hosting public viewings of the Bible, split into seven volumes, on Tuesday nights this month.
The original takes its name from Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville Township, Minnesota, whose Benedictine monks commissioned Donald Jackson, the official scribe to Queen Elizabeth II, to create a handwritten Bible to celebrate the 21st century.
The ensuing project took 15 letterers and artists 13 years, finishing in 2011. They worked on vellum, the paper-thin parchment of ancient books, with quill pens and ink ground from ink sticks. Each page, and there are more than 1,100 of them, took between seven and 13 hours to letter and illustrate.
The Bible uses the New Revised Standard Version translation and pays tribute to the illuminated manuscripts of its heritage in its lettering and conventions including large capital letters beginning each chapter, with each chapter capital a unique design, and marginalia, miniature illustrations in page margins.
Its illustrations and imagery include images and symbols from Asian, African and Western cultures, with contemporary touches — a DNA double helix, the World Trade Center destroyed on 9/11, views of galaxies — interwoven with the Orthodox tradition of gold leaf to signify divinity and butterflies in page margins as Benedictine symbols of new life and resurrection. Running through the Psalms is a motif of digitized sound waves of the abbey’s monks chanting their daily prayer.
“It’s a massive work of art,” said Beth Farwell, director of Baylor Central Libraries special collections.
Farwell said the Saint John’s Bible not only is remarkable art and a fine example of bookmaking craft, but a revealing look at the art of ancient manuscripts.
“It explodes backward — a portal for us to show more people more information about the items it was based on,” she said.
Farwell and special collections manager Andrea Turner have introduced Baylor’s Heritage Edition of Saint John’s Bible to viewers at Baylor and in the community. It is printed, not hand-copied, on cotton pages, and gold paint is used instead of gold leaf, but its 2-by-3-foot pages are exact replicas of the original, down to watermarks used on pages to suggest the art that bled through an original page.
The Bible is not without its lighter touches. Mistakes in copying text, usually an omitted word or line, are noted by a bird drawn in the margin outside the mistake holding a rope that leads to the corrected text at page’s bottom.
“I wish we could be that gracious with our mistakes,” Farwell said.
The Baylor director declined to say how much the university paid for its copy, but other Heritage Editions are priced at about $165,000.
Some 300 people have seen the Baylor copy since its arrival, the latest viewers coming this month at Central Presbyterian Church. A meal at 5:30 p.m. precedes the viewing of selected volumes of the Bible at about 6 p.m.
Tuesday’s viewing by about 40 people involved the volume containing the Gospels and the book of Acts, with the illustration of Jesus’ parable of the sower used as a theme for small group reflection.
“The illuminations help us engage with the text,” said David Rogers, associate pastor and director of internal ministries. “It was just amazing — the artwork and the details in it.”
He said inclusion of a DNA strand, modern eyeglasses and other contemporary images help connect current interpretation to the biblical text.
Tuesday’s session will focus on the Pentateuch and the story of creation found in Genesis. The next, and last, session will be June 25.
Anyone interested in arranging community showings of one or more volume of the Saint John’s Bible held at Baylor’s Moody Library, like the showings at Central Presbyterian Church, can contact Farwell.
Baylor will hold a formal dedication of its Saint John’s Bible on Sept. 22.