The Saint John’s Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods

The Saint John’s Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods opens at The Walters Art Museum feb. 15
First handwritten illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery since the advent of the printing press more than 500 years ago

Donald Jackson


The Walters Art Museum presents The Saint John’s Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods, an exhibition showcasing 44 contemporary illuminated manuscript pages from two volumes of a Bible commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. In addition, 49 renowned Walters’ manuscripts and rare books, from a variety of religious traditions, will set the The Saint John’s Bible within the historical context and global traditions of decorating sacred text. The exhibition will be on view from Feb. 15 to May 24, 2009. This large-scale book, approximately 3 feet wide by 2 feet tall when open, is being created in Wales under the direction of Donald Jackson, master calligrapher and senior scribe to Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office in the House of Lords. Even though The Saint John’s Bible is not yet finished, it has already been widely recognized as a major monument of contemporary calligraphy and book arts, particularly for its use of new and innovative imagery within an ancient tradition. This exhibition will feature the Books of Wisdom, on view for the first time outside the Saint John’s University campus, and the Books of Prophets.
“The Saint John’s Bible is a masterpiece of calligraphy and a showcase of contemporary illumination,” said Walters Director Gary Vikan. “It is particularly fitting to pair this Bible with the Walters’ distinguished collection of illuminated spiritual manuscripts and rare books to demonstrate how these historic traditions are being carried into the 21st century.”
Jackson and a team of calligraphers and artists have spent the last 10 years writing and illustrating the manuscript by hand using quills fashioned from turkey, swan and goose feathers, natural handmade paints and inks, and silver and 24-karat gold on carefully selected calf-skin parchment. The Saint John’s Bible embraces the medieval materials and processes used in creating handwritten Bibles, but it also interprets and illustrates scripture from a contemporary perspective. The text is based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a modern English translation, and the decoration of the Bible takes a boldly contemporary approach, reflecting trends and ideas in current thought and humanity’s enormous strides in science and technology. The Saint John’s Bible also adopts an inclusive perspective by incorporating imagery from Eastern and Western religious traditions as well as influences from the Native American cultures in the Minnesota area.
The Walters’ exhibition will include original folios from the fourth and fifth completed volumes of The Saint John’s Bible: Prophets and Wisdom Books. Highlights include leaves of the Vision of Isaiah, Suffering Servant, Valley of the Dry Bones and Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Original tools, sketches and materials from Jackson’s scriptorium will also be on view.
The Saint John’s Bible: A Modern Manuscript through Medieval Methods is presented by the Women’s Committee of the Walters Art Museum with lead support from Edgar and Betty Sweren. Contributing supporters include Michael P. Cataneo, Carole Barney and Cynthia Alderdice. Additional support is provided by Mary Catherine Bunting and Mary Mangione in memory of Nick Mangione. The exhibition is organized by the Walters Art Museum in association with the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John’s Abbey and University.

Walters’ Manuscripts & Rare Books
Leaves from the Books of Wisdom and Prophets will be interspersed with examples of Christian and Jewish texts from medieval Europe, Islamic manuscripts from the Middle East and India, and Buddhist scriptures from Thailand. A number of artifacts from the Walters’ collection demonstrate the sources of imagery in The Saint John’s Bible, drawing attention to the manuscript’s interfaith nature.
A 12th-century English manuscript from the Walters collection, originally from Rochester Cathedral, will be included in the exhibition. “In Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the Rochester Bible, the illuminated letter “P,” which opens the text, is typical of the Romanesque period or High Middle Ages and is filled with swirling vines and brightly colored beasts intertwined with the letter,” said Kathryn Gerry, exhibition co-curator and research associate in the department of manuscripts & rare books. “The script and page layout of this book are similar to the books that inspired the script and layout of The Saint John’s Bible.”
The exhibition will also include one of the finest illuminated Korans in the Walters’ collection and possibly one of the finest surviving Korans from the 15th-century in the world. This rare Koran was probably made in a region that is now part of present-day Afghanistan.
“The book is alive with rich and intricate ornament, and it features a beautiful script that reflects the great tradition of Islamic calligraphy,” said Ben Tilghman, exhibition co-curator and Zanvyl Krieger, curatorial fellow in the department of manuscripts & rare books. “The commentary in the margins describes ways of pronouncing the words of the text, so like The Saint John’s Bible it is both beautiful and scholarly.”
The exhibition will also include a selection of works by three calligraphers from the Baltimore-Washington area. Through a career spanning over 60 years, Sheila Waters has established herself as a renowned master calligrapher and one of the nation’s leading instructors in the art, and her book, Foundations in Calligraphy, is one of the standards of the field. Her son Julian Waters is also an internationally recognized calligrapher, typeface designer and teacher, whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine and on United States postage stamps. Mohamed Zakariya’s Arabic calligraphy has been shown throughout the world and is often cited as one of the best examples of the ongoing tradition of Islamic arts of the pen.

Background of The Saint John’s Bible
In 1998, the Saint John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, and Saint John’s University, founded by the Abbey in 1857, commissioned Jackson to carry out the creation of a major artistic, cultural and spiritual endeavor—The Saint John’s Bible. When completed in 2010, it will consist of seven volumes, each measuring 15 ¾ inches by 23 ½ inches.
The selection and interpretation of Bible passages for illumination was decided under the leadership and guidance of the Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT), a team of artists and theologians from Saint John’s, with input from other religious leaders, including men and women from a diverse range of religious traditions. This handwritten Bible is being created using state-of-the-art technology, reflecting the project’s mission of blending historical traditions with contemporary innovations. The text is sent to Jackson on computer disks, and a font close in size to the script Jackson has developed for The Saint John’s Bible is used to create a digital template, enabling him to plan the specific layout of each page. Every letter, however, is beautifully written by hand on the original pages.
“I hope some of the emotion that we have collectively managed to put into the Bible will touch the hearts and emotions of those people who look at what we put onto the pages,” said Jackson.
The Saint John’s Bible is a special ticketed exhibition. General admission to the Walters’ permanent collection is free. Purchase tickets at, 800-551-SEAT or by calling 410-547-9000, ext. 265.
Special Exhibition Admission:
Adults $8
Seniors (65+) $6
College students/young adults (18-25) $4
Age 17 & under /Walters members FREE

Museum hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Walters will be open to the public on New Years Day.

The Walters Art Museum