Ariane Bankes

Utter madness or good fortune

Ariane Bankes on an ambitious project to make a handwritten and illuminated Bible

Text settings

I work at the V&A and walk every day through galleries packed with marvellous things, but the other day I was stopped in my tracks by something unique: eight contemporary illuminated manuscript pages, flecked with gold and shimmering with light and colour in their display cases. They are, I discovered, from the Saint John’s Bible, a project of visionary scope and ambition described by the manuscript expert Christopher de Hamel as ‘either utter madness or magnificent good fortune’: a handwritten and illuminated Bible for the 21st century, the first to be made since the invention of printing more than five centuries ago.

The four openings on display, from the Book of Prophets (three from Ezekiel, one from Isaiah), surprise because they feel absolutely of the moment: their idiom is modern, even if their technique draws on the past. No one could fail to be seduced by their richness of texture and wealth of allusion. The text is handwritten by one of six scribes, using 100-year-old Chinese inks on vellum, in a beautiful, measured script devised and refined specially for this project. And the imagery, which flows organically, almost playfully, around the columns of text, is ageless: some of it resolutely contemporary; some drawing heavily on the archetypes of the past and of other cultures and faiths. The Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel features great mounds of skulls and bones and the wreck of a car in a nightmare landscape of broken glass and twisted metal (reminiscent of 9/11), beneath a rainbow sky filled with schematic Hebrew menorah. The ghostly pall of smoke that attends and partly obscures Isaiah’s Vision of the Lord ‘sitting on a throne with seraphs in attendance, the hem of his robe filling the temple...’ is rent with the seraphs’ words ‘Sanctus, Sanctus’, etched in 24-carat gold.

Around the walls are panels describing how the great folios of calfskin vellum are painstakingly prepared, how the text is mapped by computer on to the page before the scribes begin their work, how the goose and swan feathers are cured and cut for quills, how the powder and leaf gold is applied and burnished, and the way the imagery is devised and built up from layers of different ideas before the paints and pigments are mixed and applied to the page.

The Saint John’s Bible is the inspiration of Donald Jackson, Senior Illuminator to the Crown Office and one of the foremost scribes and illuminators of our age, who had dreamt for many years of producing a handwritten Bible to mark the Millennium. A fortuitous meeting in 1995 with Father Eric Hollas, director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s Abbey and University, a Benedictine foundation in Minnesota, set the wheels rolling, and by 1998 sufficient funding had been raised to commission the entire Bible, with Jackson directing a team of scribes and artists from his Scriptorium in Wales, the nerve centre of the whole project. The Books of the Bible have been grouped into seven volumes — Psalms, Gospels and Acts, the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, and Letters and Revelation — of which five have been completed (the first two are available as facsimile publications), but the entire project, all 1,080 pages of it, will not be finished until July 2007, at a cost of £2.2 million.

Why on earth employ 14 craftsmen for nine years at vast expense to produce such a thing? one might well ask. The answer lies in the ancient monastic ideal of lectio divina — deliberate, meditative reading which inspires a personal, imaginative understanding of the text. Such rumination on the Bible — often likened to cows chewing the cud, but I prefer to think of monks marinading in the Scriptures — was once integral to the religious life, and Vatican II encouraged a return to tradition in order to revivify spirituality. For the Benedictines, books have always been central to their mission to educate, and the community of Saint John’s in Minnesota (of which the late Basil Hume commented, ‘I have studied mediaeval monasteries — I think this is the first living one I have visited’) saw an opportunity, in commissioning this contemporary Bible, to reignite the spiritual imagination.

Saint John’s settled upon the New Revised Standard Version, and formed a Committee on Interpretation of the Text (CIT), comprising a rabbi and Lutheran minister among the Catholic theologians, to work with Donald Jackson on briefs for the illuminations. First came the schema, which identified the main themes and passages to be illuminated. Ideas and working sketches are exchanged in regular meetings, but most of the time fly to and fro by email across the Atlantic between the Scriptorium in Wales and Saint John’s, and the illuminations develop organically as layered collages of paper and acetate overlays until they are ready to be transferred to the vellum page. Many involve collaboration with other artists on the team: Jackson’s loose, free, contemporary style sets the tone for most, and he is a master gilder, but figures and motifs are often added by others, and rubber stamps are imaginatively used for overprinting. Sources are nothing if not eclectic: a bull from Lascaux in the Nativity, a satellite image of the Ganges delta symbolises the parting of land and sea in the Creation, a fish motif from Byzantine mosaics in Galilee (by tradition the site of one of the miraculous feedings) and schematised Navajho basket designs in the parable of the Loaves and the Fishes. The Genealogy of Christ, which opens St Matthew’s Gospel, threads stamped images of the double helix of DNA through the branches of the Jewish menorah, a symbolic tree of life.

In the galleries below is the V&A’s great survey of Modernism (6 April–23 July), to which the Saint John’s Bible provides an ironic coda. Modernism, in eschewing the past and idealising the machine ethic, looked forward to a streamlined utopia of mass-produced minimalism. More than half a century on, the Saint John’s Bible refutes all that with flair and energy. Marrying digital technology with traditional materials and techniques, and drawing its imagery together from across centuries and cultures, it celebrates multiplicity and diversity. And in turning its back on mechanical production, it shows that crafting a thing of beauty with painstaking skill and patience can in itself amount to an act of faith. The last word must go to Donald Jackson: ‘I had no strongly held Christian beliefs before I embarked on this, but working with a sacred text in this way has a unique grip on the emotions. I have seen Buddhist monks kneel down and pray in front of these pages. It’s been a metamorphosis — from inks and quills and sweat and tears, it’s taken flight.’

Pages from the Saint John’s Bible are on display at the V&A until 1 May 2006. See also