Even as unfounded fear accompanied anticipation of the year 2000 (recall the hype around Y2K), the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota commissioned a work of sacred art in 1998 to mark the dawn of the new millennium. Their desire to create an enduring work of beauty was realized when a team of artists and calligraphers under the direction of Donald Jackson, principal scribe to Elizabeth II of England, copied and illuminated the Saint John’s Bible. It was a lifelong goal for Jackson to complete a fully illuminated manuscript of the Holy Scriptures. This intersection of monastic community foresight and the imagination of a dedicated artist resulted in an exquisite work that will be admired long after our lifetimes.
An anonymous donor has made a gift of the entire seven volume heritage edition of the Saint John’s Bible to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. This exact replica copy of the original 1,127 vellum pages of the Saint John’s Bible is the first illuminated manuscript of the entire Bible and Apocrypha created since before the Reformation. In a spirit of ecumenism it uses the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. Unlike our usual Bibles in which the Apocrypha is bound separately, the “inter-testamental” books of the Apocrypha are interspersed within the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) according to Roman Catholic usage.
Since November 2015 the Cathedral participated in A Year with the Saint John’s Bible, when it was entrusted with the care of two strikingly beautiful exact replica volumes: (1) the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles and (2) The Pentateuch, or Torah, comprising the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Funding for this exhibition was made possible through a gift in memory of former Senior Warden, Charles N. “Pete” Seidlitz, Jr. A gift from the Bebe and Crosby Kemper Foundation provided resources for creating a secure and attractive space for display of the Bibles in the former cloakroom outside the Common Room and opposite the Cathedral Bookstore.
This is a work for our times. In commissioning the creation of the Saint John’s Bible the monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota specified that its illuminations would reflect the contemporary world. Sprinkled throughout the illuminations contained in the Bible are direct references to the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A satellite image of the Ganges Delta is used in a panel illuminating day three of the first Creation Story in Genesis. The double helix of DNA is incorporated in the brightly illuminated genealogy of Jesus that opens the gospel of Matthew. An image of the Twin Towers rendered in gold leaf adds depth to the illuminated page interpreting the breadth of divine forgiveness contained in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Forms borrowed from other traditions such as Jewish and Koranic art, Middle Eastern and South Asian textiles, and prayer mandalas adorn its pages. This is a work that acknowledges the plurality of our times.
In keeping with long-standing illuminated manuscript tradition, the flora and fauna depicted throughout the Saint John’s Bible are native to Collegeville and the northern Great Plains of North America. For example, the page containing the longer ending of Mark’s gospel depicts a stalk of common milkweed displaying the full life cycle of the endangered Monarch Butterfly.
The Saint John’s Bible is a significant addition to the art of the Cathedral and helps fulfill the Cathedral’s mission as a resource center for the Diocese of West Missouri and the Kansas City community. A group is being convened to develop policies and guidelines for sharing the Bible with other churches and institutions. After the other five volumes are delivered to the Cathedral in February (Historical Books, Wisdom Books, Psalms, Prophets, Letters and Revelation) a celebration is planned featuring speakers from St. John’s University, Collegeville to lecture on this masterwork and its creation.
The monks intended that the Bible be shared, used liturgically, and handled. It is designed to allow for both a visual and tactile experience. Viewers can leaf carefully through the pages, provided one has thoroughly washed hands with soap and water to remove oil and grime. As much as possible since November 2015 an open page of the Bible related to the day’s lectionary readings has been displayed at the front of the Cathedral nave during services. The Bibles are used in adult formation. Their images serve well for contemplation in visio divina, an amplification of the Benedictine practice of lectio divina, the intentional and prayerful listening to Scripture. In the Easter season one of the books was loaned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for use during the Great Vigil of Easter and at Pentecost. An area high school borrowed them for a program in the school’s library.
The beginning of A Year with the Saint John’s Bible at the Cathedral in 2015 was accompanied by great fanfare and ceremony. It was Kirkin o’ the Tartans Sunday when a large number of Scottish Presbyterians were in attendance. It was also the penultimate Sunday of the Church Year when the Collect of the Day used is:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Following the praying of the Collect that day, the Gospels and Pentateuch were carried in procession by two men in kilts, accompanied by bagpipers, drummers, and a flock of children. One of the book bearers’ parents had made a significant donation to the St. John’s monks to help pay for the creation of the Bible. This was our Christian take on the Jewish observance of Simchat Torah, the day that marks the end and beginning of the annual cycle of Torah reading when the sacred scrolls are carried during the synagogue liturgy. It was also a visual reminder that a Bible in the English language was placed in “every church and chapel of the realm” as a first act of the Sixteenth Century Reformation in England.
We at the Cathedral are looking forward to sharing the hand-written and colorfully illuminated pages of the Saint John’s Bible, lively resplendent in gold leaf, with our sister congregations in the diocese. This is a lasting resource that presents a living Word to inform and shape our faith especially as we navigate these changing and unsettled times.