Old Meets New in Stunning Bible on Loan to Creighton

Old Meets New in Stunning Bible on Loan to Creighton

By Rick Davis, BA’88

Old World craftsmanship and tradition coalesce with modern technology and current-day imagery in the Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible, a distinctive seven-volume Bible currently on loan to Creighton University.

The Saint John’s Bible, based on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, is the first handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in over 500 years.

“I am very excited about having this beautiful Bible on loan to us,” says Eileen Burke-Sullivan, STD, Creighton’s vice provost for mission and ministry. “It is such a treasure for the people of the Creighton community to ponder and let the Word find a home in their hearts through the marriage of word and art.”

The Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible is on loan to Creighton University from Michael McCarthy, chair of the Board of Trustees, and his wife, Nancy. A similar version of the Bible was donated to the Library of Congress in honor of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September.

“It is the hope of my wife, Nancy, and I that this Bible serves as a source of inspiration, spiritual reflection, artistic value and academic inquiry for Creighton University students, faculty and alumni, along with the wider community,” McCarthy says. “I believe that displaying this Bible at Creighton is a wonderful fit with the University’s academic and Jesuit, Catholic mission.”

Renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson served as artistic director for the Saint John’s Bible. Jackson is the official scribe and calligrapher to the Crown Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Creating a hand-illuminated Bible was one of his life’s dreams.

Saint John’s University and Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota commissioned the project in 1998, and a team primarily consisting of six calligraphers and six artists, including Jackson, began work on the Bible — using quills, handmade inks, gold and silver leaf, and calf-skin vellum.

The original volumes — completed in 2011, but yet to be bound — are housed at Saint John’s University when not on exhibition elsewhere.   

The Heritage Edition is the fine art version of the Saint John’s Bible. Only 299 Heritage Editions were created. Its 1,150 pages, like the original, feature 160 rich and colorful illuminations embossed with gold and silver foil.

In addition to traditional illustrations, the artists also incorporated modern-day themes in an effort to create “a Bible for the times” — with artistic interpretations of the double helix representing DNA, images of space from the Hubble telescope, New York’s Twin Towers and Earth as seen from space.   

“It is artistically so modern, so present,” Burke-Sullivan says. “It gives us an opportunity to dig deep into the wisdom of the tradition, to have this touchstone in the Word, that allows us to be both ancient and ever-new.”    

Leonard Greenspoon, Ph.D., a biblical expert and the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton, says the Saint John’s Bible can inform us of and connect us with the efforts of past generations to preserve and share the sacred Scripture.

“It’s a reflection of the fact that the preservation of the biblical text — which is so uniquely authoritative for so many people — ultimately resided in the labor-intensive efforts of scribes, who copied this material from century to century,” Greenspoon says. “Everything in the West up until 1453, when Gutenberg invented movable type, was written by hand. It’s easy to forget that now.”

Burke-Sullivan says the Bible will be incorporated into student coursework in a variety of disciplines and will open up opportunities for research and scholarship. Public displays also are planned.

Sharing the Saint John’s Bible with a wider audience is the goal behind the Heritage Edition, says Jim Triggs, executive director of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program.    

Jackson was intimately involved in the creation of the Heritage Edition, which required technically advanced printing techniques combined with Old World craftsmanship. (For instance, Ivelina Seykova, an immigrant from Bulgaria, now working at Roswell Bookbinding in Arizona, was selected to hand-stitch the pages of the Heritage Edition “because of her skills at getting the tension just right,” Triggs says.)

He also had the Bibles printed on 100 percent cotton paper, specially designed by a paper mill in New Hampshire, to maintain the look and feel of the original vellum.

Creighton Archivist David Crawford is excited to welcome the Bible to the Rare Books Room in the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library, where it is on display in a case built by the Abbey’s monks to accommodate its large size. (The Bible measures about three feet across when opened.) He expects the Bible to have wide appeal.

“This particular Bible … resonates on so many different levels,” Crawford says. “It inspires people of faith. At the same time, it is moving for people fascinated by art. It engages scientists. Theologians have commented about how they like how this art has brought out particular ideas.”

Crawford said he was impressed by the details in the illustrations. He cites the illustration of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. “In that illustration, there are radiation warning signs,” Crawford says, “and there is the structure of a diseased cell.”

That attention to detail extended to creating faux “bleed-through.” Bleed-through occurs when a faint impression bleeds through to the other side of the page. The paper stock and printing process basically eliminated the bleed-through. “So they took the image from the front side of the page, flipped it and used it as a watermark on the following page,” Crawford says. “So you get the impression that there is bleed-through, just like you would with the vellum.”

The personal, human stories, however, are what strike Crawford most.

He relates the story told to him of a young African-American boy viewing the Bible with his class and seeing the illustration of Adam and Eve, who are depicted as black. “Tears are coming down his cheeks,” Crawford says. “The teachers went over and asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘This is the first time I have seen myself in the Scriptures.’”

He also appreciates how inadvertently omitted lines of text are handled in an artistic way. “You’ll see a bird holding a rope, and it connects to a banner at the bottom of the page with the missing text, and the bird’s beak points to where the line is supposed to go,” he says.

“I love the fact that with all the attention to detail, the beautiful calligraphy and artwork, that there is still this human element. You see that the most talented, gifted, attention-to-detail people still make small mistakes.”

But make no mistake about it, the Heritage Edition is something to be seen. And Jackson, the creative mind behind the project, loves to hear about the ripple effects the Saint John’s Bible is creating.

“He loves to hear the stories about how the Bible is being shared,” Triggs says. “When he handed off the project, he made a really important point. He said, ‘This is not my Bible. This is for the world.’”

Burke-Sullivan says she hopes the Creighton community will take advantage of opportunities to engage with the Bible.

“The opportunity to really gaze upon someone else’s artistic interpretation of the text, along with the text itself,” Burke-Sullivan says, “opens up new ways of seeing and hearing the Word.”


Picture Perfect

Mark Rauenhorst, BA’75, is a member of the Creighton University Board of Trustees, former president and chief executive officer of the Opus Corporation and current president of Marren Properties, but on Sept. 24, he happily served as amateur photographer as Pope Francis blessed an Apostles Edition of the Saint John’s Bible as it was officially presented to the Library of Congress.

“To be a part of this historic event, it was really wonderful,” said Rauenhorst, who took the photo above on his cellphone. “But perhaps even more exciting is that we’re able to have this contemporary version of the Bible in the Library of Congress.”

The Rauenhorst family and their GHR Foundation were early supporters of the Saint John’s Bible project. Librarian of Congress James Billington, Ph.D., was also fascinated by the project, Rauenhorst said. With Billington having announced in June that he would retire effective Jan. 1, 2016, and Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States in September, the timing seemed perfect for the gift, Rauenhorst said, which was made possible by the GHR Foundation.

“It was a way to share the Word and this wonderful piece, the Bible, with the American people on the occasion of the pope’s visit,” Rauenhorst said.

Pope Francis blessed one of the books of the Bible following his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24. “He was so gracious,” Rauenhorst said of the pope. The Rev. John Klassen, OSB, abbot of Saint John’s Abbey, presented the Bible to Billington.

The Saint John’s Bible is on display in the entry of the Library of Congress through Jan. 2, 2016, along with the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible.