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