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Modern Illumination: The Saint John’s Bible

While recently visiting family in the frigid Midwest I had the opportunity to see the Illuminated Saint John’s Bible exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI. It was commissioned in 1998 by the Saint John’s Abbey and University and took until 2011 to complete. Calligrapher Donald Jackson directed a team of six scribes and seven illuminators to create beautiful images and script across a total of 1,150 pages.

In addition to the finished work, the exhibit featured some of the concept pages. An enormous amount of planning and precision goes into an illuminated work such as this. Computers were used to plan initial layouts and line breaks. However, the actual artistry was completed by hand. Various ancient techniques were used including: quill calligraphy, gold leaf, and hand-ground pigments combined with egg yolk and water.

Today it’s rare to see such labor intensive techniques—especially in a work this size. This level of artistry and skill resulted in a bold and extraordinary piece of art. The interpretation of the text was also extremely unique. Many of the scenes used modern imagery including high-rise buildings and a junkyard of vehicles.

It was intriguing to see ancient words combined with modern imagery. My favorite scene was The Life of Paul. It shows the apostle Paul surrounded by secular and sacred buildings from various historical periods from the last 2,000 years. The modern buildings contrast with many older style elements such as Paul’s stance in a classical Greek pose.

While the visual beauty and craftsmanship of the book is astounding, the question of relevancy seems highly valid. Is a work that takes over a decade to produce actually relevant in today’s modern, fast-paced world? And is this a work of art that will live on for years to come, or more of a PR piece that will soon be forgotten?

Explore the work and see what you think.

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