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Video: Beautiful handwritten bible made over 12 years

  1. Closed captioning of: Beautiful handwritten bible made over 12 years

    >>> 500 years ago newton's printing press gave the first mass produced bible. illuminated version a work of art as much as a religious text . but st. john's university in minnesota and donald jackson , the queen's calligrapher are bringing back the tradition with a bible 12 years in the making. donald, good morning, great to see you again. i saw you about 12 years ago.

    >> yeah.

    >> you described this as your life's dream and you've been doing it ever since. was the experience what you thought it would be.

    >> no.

    >> how was it different.

    >> it was a lot harder, a lot longer, a lot more stressful and actually i find it far more like myself than i ever needed to know.

    >> was this an everyday eight-hour a day day ordeal or did you put it down for awhile, pick it back up? how did you work on this.

    >> first of all it was a team effort and i had to train people to work -- they were experts but just like musicians they have to work together on this and they have to agree that the text was, you know, what like to do and so the text was all written out and then the spaces were illuminated and illustrated to bring out the meanings of the word.

    >> this is a reproduction of your masterpiece. we look over here. this is one of the first pages you d it's done on skin with 130-year-old chinese ink , the pens were made of quills from burs and reeds. did you use any modern technology.

    >> modern technology, a computer to lay out all the text that we knew where every line was going to start and where every line was going to finish. didn't stop us making mistakes, of course, but we did try.

    >> tell us about this, one of the first pages you did.

    >> well, the techniques are ancient. i mean the gold on here which you might catch is raised and burnished gold leaf on it but the ideas come from that. they come from everyday --

    >> you muttput a modern twist on this ancient work?

    >> yes. so when i want to create an idea of one space and time i'm using images from the hubble telescope which weren't available to the monks in the old days but they were trying to do the same thing. they were trying to make these words look important. feel important. and your experience of it.

    >> as we move over to one of the later pages that you did over here, we're talking about a generation these days where people have kindle. they have an ipad and push a button, everything they want pops up instantly. do you think people will even be able to grasp what you went through to create it.

    >> i do believe that because i think, you see, when you use a quill, because it is a delicate instrument and it picks up you. i mean as you write, every breath you take, heartbeat, just like a musical instrument , it guess into that and i just do believe that on one level people pick up on that energy. seven volumes over 1,100 pages.

    >> when finished it's 165 pounds, something like that you've called it your sistine chapel . how do you top that?

    >> well, my wife thinks retirement would be a good idea. but i'm kidding. i have no idea. i just don't know. there is no -- i don't feel relief. i just still feel the cage door has been opened but i'm not quite sure how or where i'm going to go when i go through there. working still on this wonderful series of printed interpretations of this which is --

    >> it's spectacular. it's a masterpiece. donald jackson , what a pleasure to see you again.

TODAY contributor
updated 10/19/2011 10:24:19 AM ET 2011-10-19T14:24:19

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press put Bibles in the hands of the everyman, but largely extinguished the art of hand-writing the massive tome.

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But now, a new iconic version has been created — and the St. John's Bible, some 13 years in the making, was unveiled on TODAY.

Video: Beautiful handwritten bible made over 12 years (on this page)

World-renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson showed pages from the master work, which was commissioned by St. John’s University in Minnesota in 1998 and completed when the final “Amen” was inscribed on May 9 of this year.

The Bible, to be bound in seven volumes, contains 1,150 pages, weighs 165 pounds and measures two-feet tall by three-feet wide when opened. And every single one of its nearly 775,000 words was painstakingly written by hand by a team of scribes using 130-year-old Chinese ink dispensed through writing quills made of goose, turkey and swan feathers.

The St. John’s Bible — the first commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery since the 1500s — not only contains the exquisitely crafted text but numerous illuminations set in paints that contain precious metals including silver and 24 karat gold.

Calligrapher Donald Jackson calls the St. John's Bible his "Sistine Chapel."

Speaking with the 73-year-old Jackson, Matt Lauer wondered aloud whether a younger generation accustomed to reading on iPads and Kindles could fully grasp the magnitude of Jackson’s achievement.

The beauty of it should show through to anyone, Jackson said.

“When you use a quill, because it is a delicate instrument, and it picks up you — I mean as you write, every breath you take, (every) heartbeat, just like a musical instrument, it goes into that,” Jackson said. “I just do believe that on one level, people pick up on that energy.”

While Jackson’s work harkens back to the days when illuminated Bibles were the only way the word of the Christian God could be spread, monks from the days of Gutenberg would surely not recognize this new version. Jackson said he and his team of scribes — he wrote and illustrated the Book of Revelation solo, and oversaw the work of trained experts on other books — used a computer to lay out “where every line was going to start and where every line was going to finish.”

The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota
The Psalms Frontispiece, by Donald Jackson in the Saint John’s Bible. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition.

But more creatively, Jackson and his team wove in modern day images to illustrate some of the Bible’s messages. The Cambodian genocide at the hands of Khmer Rouge, crashed automobiles, nuclear reactors and blown-up slides of cancer and AIDS cells are all part of the St. John’s Bible's illustrations.

“When I wanted to create an idea of wonder of space and time I’m using images from the Hubble Telescope, which weren’t available to the monks in the old days,” said Jackson. “But they were trying to do the same thing; they were trying to make these words look important, feel important.”

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With his monumental project — Jackson has called it his “Sistine Chapel” — now completed, what's next?

“Well, my wife thinks retirement would be a good idea,” Jackson said. “But actually I have no idea. I don’t feel relief (from finishing); I still feel the caged doors being opened, but I’m not quite sure how or where I am going to go when I go through there.”

For starters, some of the pages of St. John’s Bible are making museum rounds before the volumes are bound. The project cost St. John’s University and neighboring St. John’s Abbey an estimated $8 million, offset by donations and the future sale of full-size facsimiles of the Bible that will cost a whopping $140,000 a pop.

But St. John’s Abbot John Klassen indicates the expense was worth every penny.

“It has far surpassed what any of us ever imagined in our most optimum moments,” he told the Associated Press. “The quality of workmanship and the quality of artistry is phenomenal.”

For more information on the St. John's Bible, click here.

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