Monumental – In the tradition of great medieval Bibles, The Saint John’s Bible is monumental — two feet tall and three feet wide and 1,100+ pages organized in seven distinct volumes.
Contemporary – Though each letter is rendered by hand, The Saint John’s Bible used state-of-the-art computer technology to create and manage page layouts as well as employed a modern English translation and contemporary scripts and illumination.
Ecumenical – Saint John’s Abbey and University are dedicated to ecumenism. The text, translation and imagery in The Saint John’s Bible reflect this commitment.
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was selected by theologians and scholars at Saint John’s University as the translation for The Saint John’s Bible. It was selected because its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, had gained the distinction of being officially authorized for use by most major Christian Churches: Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. NSRV is a modern English translation with a strong literal tradition and it has been approved by the Canadian Conference of Bishops for Catholic use in Canada and The National Conference of Catholic Bishops for use by Catholics in the United States.
Tools and Materials
The Saint John’s Bible incorporates many of the characteristics of its medieval predecessors. It was written on calfskin vellum using turkey, goose and swan quills. The team of scribes used natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments, and gold and silver leaf gild.
Layout and Design
A computer was used to size the text and define line breaks. The pages were laid out in full size spreads with sketches in position. Artists used these layouts to guide their work. Each page is 24 ½” x 15 7/8”, making a two-page spread approximately three feet wide.
Book headings — Each book of the Bible has an illuminated book heading Throughout the Bible, book titles appear on each two-page spread written in English on the left page and in its native translation root (most often Hebrew or in some cases Greek) on the right page.
Verses — Paragraph changes are marked by small colored “kites” alternating in 19th century vermilion water-color (red) and sky blue designer gouache as well as other colors; and the verse numbers appear in the margins. All other verse numbers appear in the line of text and are written with a smaller pen.
Chapter Capitals — The beginning of each chapter begins with a large decorative capital letter. Each decorative capital in the entire project is different.
Script — The calligraphic script was specially designed for The Saint John’s Bible by Donald Jackson. Letters are written in lamp black ink from 19th century Chinese stick inks made from carbon.
Script size — The “x” height describes the size of the script. The small letters are about two millimeters tall. The height of the script is directly proportionate to the size of the quill.
Columns — Each page has two 4 ¾” columns of script. Columns are justified on the left and the right. There are 54 lines per column, and an average of 10.5 words per line.
Marginalia — Small decorative illustrations, often created with gold leaf and other gilding, appear in the margins.
Notations — The official notes from the New Revised Standard Version appear in the lower left and right hand margins of each page.
The theological briefs presented composite word-pictures for each of the passages developed by the Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT). The CIT was made up of artists, medievalists, theologians, biblical scholars and art historians. These exegetical (an explanation or critical interpretation of the text) and theological briefs were narratives that varied in length and were in an outline form. They provided Jackson with suggested verses, scriptural cross-references, free association about the text and its imagery, and local association/references to existing works of artistic interpretation.
The Saint John’s Bible has over 160 illuminations and numerous special text treatments filling its 1,100+ pages. The illuminations were all dictated by a list called the ‘schema,’ a master plan identifying which passages were to be illuminated. The schema was expanded with detailed theological ‘briefs’ giving Donald Jackson full background on each passage. The schema also stated how large each illumination was to be. Jackson’s process in preparing to illuminate a passage was similar to the monastic practice of Lectio Divina, a careful mulling over the text, looking at the details, thinking, meditating, and letting it sink in. The Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT) wrote the theological briefs and likened its work to a group experience of Lectio Divina. Jackson’s sacred reading had a practical aim: to spark visual ideas.
The Saint John’s Bible speaks of the 1500-year-old tradition of Saint Benedict and his Rule, and the following Benedictine values in particular:
Hospitality – The Rule of Saint Benedict says the guest should be received as Christ. The Saint John’s Bible speaks to hospitality for the poor, the pilgrim, the seeker and the stranger.
Transformation – Benedictines take the vow of conversatio or conversion of life. Conversatio entails an ongoing process of aligning one's life more closely to the life of Christ.
Justice for God's People – Of special concern to Benedictines and all believers in biblical revelation is the constant call for justice for all of God's people who are equally worthy before God.
Benedictine references – each scripture passage referred to by St. Benedict in the Rule is marked with a special cross in The Saint John’s Bible, connecting this Bible to the Benedictines in Minnesota.