Saint John’s Bible

The Clark Library is proud to exhibit a Heritage Edition of the Saint John's Bible, the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible to have been commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey since the invention of the printing press. The Heritage Edition uses special ink, paper, and printing techniques to replicate the original Saint John's Bible. Only 299 Heritage Editions were produced, and ours is the only one in the state of Oregon. Many thanks to Allen and Kathie Lund and Family, who donated the Bible to the University.

“Correction Bumblebee” in Wisdom 7. Artist: Chris Tomlin.

Correction Bee in Wisdom of Solomon cropped

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An upcoming presentation on Whimsy and Humor in The Saint John’s Bible will likely include this image, previously presented on this blog in March 2014.

A bee works a pulley next to verses from Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 7 — verses referencing the Wisdom Woman illumination previously on display. The text reads:

Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
[I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.]
I preferred her to scepters and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.

The text in brackets is missing. In the original Saint John’s Bible, written in ink on vellum, the scribe could scrape off a faulty stroke or character, but each page of the Bible took 7 to 10 hours to write and so missing lines of text were a bigger issue. The Bible artists solved the problem in a whimsical way, by recruiting animals to lift the missing line into place. Take a look at the display page; the missing line appears at the bottom of the page, and the bee has enclosed it in a box tied with a rope running through a pulley. The pulley’s top wheel, and a tiny arrow, mark the correct location for the missing text. The other two wheels help to guide your eye along the ropes to the passage.

Sarah Harris and Donald Jackson designed the pulley system based on Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical drawings. Artist Chris Tomlin, who studied natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art in London, drew many botanical and animal images for The Saint John’s Bible, some of which appeared in previous images on this blog, such as the lemur, the chameleon at the end of 2 Maccabees, the butterflies on Jacob’s Ladder, and the coral snake and other animals in the Garden of Eden / Adam and Eve illumination.

Luke Anthology. Artists: Donald Jackson, with contributions by Aidan Hart and Sally Mae Joseph..

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Click to enlarge.

This is an illumination that deserves lengthy contemplation, as each diagonal stripe in the left-hand side of the page contains images from 5 parables in the book of Luke: “The Lost Coin” (15:8-10); “The Lost Sheep” (15:4-7); “The Good Samaritan” (10:29-37); “The Lost Son” (15:11-32); and “Lazarus and Dives” (16:19-31).

In the upper corner, the moon-like coin and the sheep turned toward the light represent the repenting sinner, and the golden angels rejoice in each act of contrition. Meanwhile in the lower corner a father brings his best cloak to welcome a wandering son with tears of forgiveness, and Dives agonizes in Hell while angels sing Lazarus to his rest in Abraham’s arms. Abraham is identified by Hebrew letters. The father’s cloak, Lazarus’s angels, and Dives’s arm all point to a powerful symbol of the challenge of forgiving evil: the Twin Towers.

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Click to enlarge.

On the right we see Mary and Martha clad in mirror-embellished and embroidered fabrics, listening to Jesus perhaps tell a parable. The words on this page read “There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42), and that one thing is to listen. Susan Sink explains:

Martha stands in her apron with hands on hips and looks impatient, but at the same time she is, like her sister seated beside her, also gazing at the Lord. Martha and Mary are two sides of love and care, two images of hospitality, a value that is central to the Benedictine tradition. (Art of The Saint John’s Bible, Vol. 1, p. 81)

Filling spaces between diagonals and borders are elements from a mandala, meant according to Donald Jackson “to suggest the way the mind and intelligence work to interpret and understand concepts, like teasing out the meaning of parables and applying them to our contemporary lives.” (Ibid., p. 84)

Ruth and Naomi. Artist: Suzanne Moore.

Ruth and Naomi

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A woman and her mother-in-law embrace and gaze at a landscape of rolling green and yellow hills and colorful dwellings. “Their future” says Susan Sink (Art of The Saint John’s Bible, vol. 3, p. 31), as their current situation is bleak. They are two widows, Ruth and Naomi, and one of them is an outsider. But thanks to their love for each other, and God’s favor toward them, they will thrive. Ruth’s attentions to her mother-in-law will attract her second husband and she will produce a son, the father of King David.

But for the moment they survive through Ruth’s gleaning. She follows harvesters to steal a grain and perhaps a stray stalk here and there, an occupation that lasts only during the gathering time and that places Ruth at risk of being harassed by the men in the fields. On the facing page we see Ruth standing proudly with her basket.

Sink draws our attention to several motifs on the page, such as the stamped motif sparkling around Ruth and Naomi’s heads in both images, representing cosmic order to the universe and especially God’s miraculous provision for the two widows. And the basket of plenty, which Sink describes as

…more than a basket of grain. It seems to speak to the abundance and fertility at the center of her being, an extension of her swirling skirts. Barrenness and God’s promises will play a role in [several stories in the Bible]. The parallels are rich.

The image of Ruth and Naomi has parallels also in other Saint John’s Bible images, such as (says Sink) the portrait of Mary and Martha in the Luke Anthology. Come to the UP Authors event next Thursday 10/9 from 3:00 to 4:30 to examine this and other images up close.

Out of the Whirlwind, 3: He Will Wipe Every Tear. Artist: Thomas Ingmire.

Out of the Whirlwind 3, from Job

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Interested in a puzzle? Clark Library has learned that recently an 8-year-old girl found a mistake in this illumination, which appears on the last page of Job. Library staff have not yet found it. If you find it, please point it out!

This illumination has three layers and according to Susan Sink is structured similarly to the Messianic Predictions illumination in Prophets, also by Thomas Ingmire, “with strings of words like trumpet blasts.” (The Art of The Saint John’s Bible, vol. 2, p. 20) First, sentences seemingly clipped from newspaper articles report on all that Job has lost. In reply, Job states, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” And finally, the illumination’s foundation offers comfort:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more;
for the first things have passed away.

Joshua Anthology. Artist: Donald Jackson, with contributions by Thomas Ingmire.

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Click to enlarge.

This illumination appears at the beginning of the book of Joshua, which reminds the reader that Moses did not reach the Promised Land and that Joshua took up the task of leading the Israelites out of the wilderness across the Jordan River. Their progress toward the distant green valley is symbolized by a parade of fragments from the Ten Commandments illumination, and by a gold arched stamp representing the Ark of the Covenant. Hazards encumber their journey: the river is filled with drowned bodies; lions watch from the cliff tops; a scarab beetle seems to want to lead them in the wrong direction. Spiritual temptations threaten: you will recognize the golden calf and an Egyptian eye signifying the false gods of Egypt.

Donald Jackson also represented Egypt in the illumination’s border, taking the design “from a frieze on an Egyptian burial tomb.” (Susan Sink, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible, vol. 3, p. 14)

For this final blog post of the 2013-2014 academic year, as we send best wishes to UP graduates, the library is pleased to provide a reflection on this illumination from Theology professor Michael Cameron:

Each of us over the course of a lifetime hears, speaks, reads, and writes millions of words. From somewhere deep within they well up to help us in ways both ordinary and extraordinary, from making a grocery list to comforting a dying parent. From that same deep reservoir of human words God’s covenant drew a special few to express divine love, to teach truth, and to blaze a trail of wisdom. In order to learn and obey God’s will, while Israel was forbidden to fashion images of God they were commanded to know words of God. No wonder that Jewish tradition through the ages has seen the Ten Commandments (literally in Hebrew, “the Ten Words”) as little glowing lanterns of God’s presence (see Psalm 119). But becoming “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22) was and is an enormous challenge. Entering the Promised Land under Joshua, the people formed by God’s wisdom were tossed by huge waves of temptation that threatened to drown the words of the covenant, especially the words forbidding love for other gods. In our world of endless texts and tweets and wooing words of enticement, what waves still batter the covenant commands about faithful love?

Garden of Desire. Artist: Donald Jackson.

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Click to enlarge.

The Garden of Desire illumination is rich with details intended to evoke the many images and layers of meaning in the Song of Solomon. The eye is drawn first to the garden of the title and its wall, and on closer inspection you’ll discover that the garden houses an intricate labyrinth outlined in delicate gold. Expanding your view outward, notice the line segments, some bright gold and others warm red, that have escaped the garden. If captured and reassembled, these segments would cover a portion of the labyrinth; they are puzzle pieces. Their travels around the page lead your eye to the border where you might notice first the trees, then the flowers, houses, camels, birds, and people.

The labyrinth, puzzle pieces, and border reference the Song’s imagery and meaning layers. One can read the Song as a love poem between humans and also as an expression of God’s love for Israel. Similarly the labyrinth can be a symbol of the path one travels to reach Wisdom however defined: knowledge, peace with the world and oneself, God, etc. The puzzle pieces have escaped and become disordered, but perhaps they long for order and desire to be reunited. They might represent humans’ desire for social connection, and for some people connection to God.

In The Art of The Saint John’s Bible, Susan Sink writes that artist Donald Jackson enthusiastically embraced the “opportunity to find a visual language for this poetry” and states that the Bible’s highest ratio of illumination to text is found in the Song of Solomon book: “two back-to-back spreads and a text treatment adorn the eight chapters.” (Vol. 2, p. 32) You can see the shadow of the second back-to-back spread on the right-hand page of this illumination. The shadow is specially printed on the Heritage Edition to mimic the ink bleed-through that occurred in the original.

The Crucifixion. Artist: Donald Jackson.

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Click to enlarge.

The “Crucifixion” illumination from Luke will be featured in Visio Divina sessions on Wednesday, April 16, at 12:45 p.m. (30 minutes) and 7:15 p.m. (40 minutes) in the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. This Lenten prayer opportunity is sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Garaventa Center. Campus Ministry’s Interactive Lenten Calendar provides this commentary:

This is the beginning of Holy Week. Lent is almost over. How far have you come on this Journey to Jerusalem we began on Ash Wednesday? Are you standing with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem? Will you be with him on Friday? Spend some time asking for the grace of fidelity, for love. May we be true to our call to follow Christ. May we be true to our invitation to love. Jesus did the difficult work. We have only to respond to his gift.

Throughout The Saint John’s Bible, gold leaf represents the divine. This illumination is awash in it, representing Christians’ belief that Jesus is God. The customary outline of the crucified figure is barely visible. Breaking through the dazzling gilt, we see other elements of the story: on either side the two crosses representing the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus; on the left the moon and stars representing the hours of darkness over the land that coincided with the event; on the right a file of people representing the procession with the cross to Golgotha.

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Click to enlarge.

On the facing page in the Bible you will see a scene from the story of the road to Emmaus (right),  in which Jesus appeared to two of his disciples.

Suffering Servant. Artist: Donald Jackson.

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Click to enlarge.

The “Suffering Servant” illumination from Isaiah will be featured in Visio Divina sessions on Wednesday, April 9, at 12:45 p.m. (30 minutes) and 7:15 p.m. (40 minutes) in the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. This Lenten prayer opportunity is sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Garaventa Center. Campus Ministry’s Interactive Lenten Calendar provides this commentary:

The Prophets describe a coming Messiah who will restore peace and justice to Israel, yet he will be despised by the wicked and bear their sins quietly. Thus, he is called the Suffering Servant. In Jackson’s image, an emaciated prisoner stands above the head of a lamb, referencing the text in which the Messiah endures his tormenters with grace, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7). The shadow of a modern chain link fence surrounds the Servant, drawing a parallel between the Messiah’s suffering and that of victims of suffering in today’s world. But just as the figure stands alone in Jackson’s image, so the Suffering Servant will one day be singled out by God to reign in Zion.

Regarding the chain link fence, Susan Sink in The Art of The Saint John’s Bible specifies, “This image was taken from pictures of the fence around Guantanamo Bay, Cuba…The confinement closer to the figure suggests the narrow bars of the Door of No Return at Elmina Castle in Ghana, the passage through which Africans were taken onto ships, bound for slavery in the New World.” (vol. 2, p. 68)


Valley of Dry Bones. Artist: Donald Jackson.

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Click to enlarge.

The “Valley of Dry Bones” illumination from Ezekiel will be featured in Visio Divina sessions on Wednesday, April 2, at 12:45 p.m. (30 minutes) and 7:15 p.m. (40 minutes) in the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. This Lenten prayer opportunity is sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Garaventa Center. Campus Ministry’s Interactive Lenten Calendar provides a prompt:

God makes all things new. He raises the dead. He gives the dry bones new flesh. So, too, in our own lives. God can transform all things. Where do you need God’s work in your life? Ask God for this grace.

This illumination illustrates Ezekiel 37: 1-14, in which God sets Ezekiel in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones, representing a destroyed society cut off from faith. Ezekiel preaches the word of God to the bones, and God promises the bones that He will “put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.” You will find many human bones in this illumination, as well as the figurative bones of civilization.

In The Art of the Saint John’s Bible, Susan Sink relates how Donald Jackson began work on this illumination with an Internet search, looking for documentary photos of human suffering.

“The skulls are based on photos taken of genocide and war in Armenia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Bosnia. The piles of broken glass suggest the broken windows caused by car bombs…. At the center is a pile of eyeglasses, a well-known image from the Holocaust. [...] For Donald Jackson the waste of ecological disaster is part of the larger image…. The three automobile hulls are one sign of the spiritual death of society.” (Sink, vol. 2, p. 82)

Yet throughout the image we find glimmers of hope. Note the splash of oil on the right-hand page, with a rainbow sheen connecting the dry bones to the exultant rainbow at the top. Remember the gold squares from the Creation image? They are present here, indicating divine watchfulness.

Finally, note the seven menorahs, a sign throughout the Saint John’s Bible of creation and covenant. Sink notes: “Here the seven gold and black bars are intersected by arcs that end in points of light. Seven menorahs with seven points of light rise out of and transcend the wreckage and wrongdoings of humankind….” (Sink, vol. 2, p. 83)

A post about the Valley of Dry Bones illumination originally appeared in the Clark Library Blog on October 29, 2013.

The Ten Commandments. Artist: Thomas Ingmire.


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The “Ten Commandments” illumination from Exodus will be featured in Visio Divina sessions on Wednesday, March 26, at 12:45 p.m. (30 minutes) and 7:15 p.m. (40 minutes) in the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. This Lenten prayer opportunity is sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Garaventa Center. Campus Ministry’s Interactive Lenten Calendar provides a prompt:

God’s giving of the Ten Commandments atop of Mount Sinai ranks was one of the greatest religious events of all time. Moses acts as the intermediary for the people who are too frightened to approach the mountain or who have been prohibited from doing so. Not only do the Ten Commandments have significance in religious history, but they have also had a tremendous effect on civil law the world over. Just as the creation in Genesis brought order from the chaos, the Law, according to Jewish interpretation, brings order from the chaos of lawless society. In this sense, the giving of the Law is a new creation. The law forms the foundation of the covenant that God is establishing with His people.

A Saint John’s Bible press release about this illumination says “Just as the creation in Genesis brought order from the chaos, the Law, according to Jewish interpretation, brings order from the chaos of lawless society. In this sense, the giving of the Law is a new creation.” In this illumination we find several references to the Creation image, e.g. the multiple panels across the top, the inclusion of birds (look for eyes and wings). The panels represent four stories: the burning bush, the first Passover, the Red Sea crossing, and the twelve pillars erected at the foot of Mount Sinai.

The architectural features and religious symbols you see here will appear in other SJB illuminations, such as the faint menorah in the burning bush, the pillars/skyline, and the Cubist elements in the middle panels.

Artist Thomas Ingmire draws our attention to the typography on the page, saying “the most fascinating part for me in the Ten Commandments is their relationship to the history of writing. The Commandments were given in alphabetical form, rather than pictograms. As I see it, the Commandments could only be taken in as a mysterious code by the Hebrews (themselves slaves and not necessarily literate). The Lord, by the second Commandment which forbade the creation of engraved images, reinforced the mystery. His words, in alphabetical form, were the strongest evidence of his existence: I am who I am – no pictures, statues…..Words = God. This is clearly an abstract concept – just as the alphabet, when one really thinks about it, is a completely abstract concept.  I am interested in the idea that God presented himself as an abstraction and the abstraction was the Word.”

Susan Sink adds, “the familiar words of the commandments [are] stenciled in Stone Sans typeface as though engraved on tablets.” (The Art of the Saint John’s Bible, vol. 1, p. 27)

A post about the Ten Commandments illumination originally appeared in the Clark Library Blog on September 13, 2013.