Sunday, January 4, 2004

New hand-written, illustrated Bible creates enthusiasm

By Michelle Tan
St. Cloud Times

The Rev. Eric Hollas never thought the product of a simple lunch conversation could grab so much international attention.

Hollas was the first person to seriously discuss with famed calligrapher Donald Jackson the creation of a Bible written and illustrated entirely by hand.

That was eight years ago.

Today, work on the St. John's Bible - the first such project commissioned in 500 years - has almost reached the halfway point.

The finished Bible will draw scholars worldwide to St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. Interest in the Bible is so high an international exhibition tour is already being planned.

The painstaking process to write every word of the Bible on calfskin vellum using quills made from geese, swan or turkey feathers is showcased in a documentary by the BBC, Illuminating the St. John's Bible.

Hand-writing the Bible has been Jackson's lifelong dream, says Carol Marrin, director of the St. John's Bible project.

"And I do think there's a big interest in spirituality," she says. "I think lots of people are interested, and the Bible isn't being debunked as much as it was. If we can give people the opportunity to connect that way, why not? We've got enough horrible stuff in the world."

But launching the $4 million, eight-year project wasn't easy.

To date, more than 560 people and organizations have donated money to the project. More than $3 million has been raised, and project officials continue to raise money, Marrin says.

Master of detail

The entire project, a full 1,100 pages, is expected to be finished in late 2006 or early 2007, Marrin says. Gospels and Acts and Pentateuch - two of the seven volumes that will make up the Bible - are done. Each is insured for $1 million.

Jackson works on the Bible, based on the New Revised Standard Version, from his home and a studio in Wales.

He has a team of scribes who spend an average of eight to 10 hours on each page of the Bible.

The man considered to be one of the best calligraphers in the Western world spares no detail when it comes to fulfilling his life's dream.

Jackson and his team use quills specific to their writing hands. The calfskin vellum is kept in a room set about 54 percent humidity to protect it from curling.

Jackson and his team use gold and silver leaf, gold and silver powder that's made into ink, platinum, gouache and some ancient Chinese inks to produce their work.

"Donald took our own abstract ideas and gave them a visual interpretation," Hollas says. "People gasp when they first see the pages. They're amazed."

The idea behind the Bible and its rich, textured illuminations is to ignite the reader's imagination, Marrin says.

"With the Benedictines here, they pray Scriptures every day," she says. "The idea is to engage people in Scripture differently, to invite people to read Scripture and to see it."

Everyone's book

Ryan Tamm, who owns a video production company in nearby St. Cloud, Minn., already caught his first glimpse of the Bible.

He interned for a week with a three-person crew from the BBC when its documentary about the project was filmed on campus. He helped with production-related issues.

"I didn't know a lot about the St. John's Bible before the crew showed up," Tamm says. "It's a beautiful project ... and it's definitely something that's worth documenting."

Parts of the Bible will be on display from mid-April to October 2004 at the university and in 2005, three volumes of the Bible - Gospels and Acts, Pentateuch and Psalms - will be on display as part of an international exhibition tour.

The tour starts April 2005 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Other venues include the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

Other possible venues include museums in New York, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco.

After the exhibition tour wraps up, possibly in 2008, the Bible will be bound into seven volumes.

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