Chazen Museum of Art


Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible

Chazen Museum of Art, Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries
December 19, 2014 – March 15, 2015.

November 25, 2014

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible will present 68 original pages from all seven volumes of The Saint John’s Bible along with tools, sketches, materials, and rare books, which help to tell the story of this monumental creation. The exhibition was realized through the collaborative efforts of the Chazen and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The exhibition runs Dec. 19, 2014 through March 15, 2015.

The Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions will hold a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition. “Visualizing and Translating Scriptures: Reflections on The Saint John’s Bible,” will include public events on Feb. 26.

Beginning in 1996, the community of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, began planning and working on The Saint John’s Bible—the first handwritten, illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in five hundred years. The work of creating the Bible involved countless hours of meetings, artist studio time and the financial support of almost 1,400 individual donors. On May 9, 2011, the last word of the Bible was penned, bringing the almost 15-year production phase to completion.

This unique undertaking combines a centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship with the latest capabilities of computer technology and electronic communication. The words are handwritten on vellum (calfskin) using hand-cut quills fashioned from turkey, swan or goose feathers, and ancient inks hand-ground from natural minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, and vermillion. The pages are illuminated with the brilliance of 24-karat gold leaf, silver leaf, and platinum. The complete work includes 1,127 handwritten pages and over 160 major artworks.   

The exhibition at the Chazen will include original folios (pages) from all seven of the volumes of The Saint John’s Bible which make up the complete Old and New Testament:  Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom Books, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels and Acts, and Letters and Revelation. Sixty-eight pages will be on view including 32 vivid illuminations that share the pages with the graceful script. Highlights include the illuminations for Creation, Adam and Eve, The Ten Commandments, Esther, Vision of Isaiah, Valley of the Dry Bones, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wisdom Woman, The Genealogy of Christ, Loaves and Fishes, The Opening to the Gospel of John, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Vision of the New Jerusalem. Visitors will find themselves being drawn in by the striking illuminations, vibrant colors, and thoughtful treatment of these ancient texts. 

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible presents the story of the book’s creation. Artists’ tools and materials along with preliminary sketches and artists’ drafts give insight into the thinking and processes used in creating the pages. A small selection of ancient rare books and manuscripts provide a historical context for the manuscript tradition and serve as a testament to the durability of the traditional methods and materials used in the project.

Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Chazen Museum of Art Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts, and from the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions.

The Saint John’s Bible – More Detail

Saint John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, and Saint John’s University, founded by the Abbey in 1857, officially commissioned Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers, in 1998 to carry out the creation of The Saint John’s Bible. Mr. Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, led a team of artists who collaborated with a theological team from Saint John’s Abbey and University.    

Mr. Jackson created the illustrations using traditional tools, colors, inks, and metals, inviting other scribes from around the world to consult and work with him at the scriptorium. Illustrations were illuminated with gold leaf, silver leaf and platinum. The Saint John’s Bible was written with quills on carefully selected vellum (calfskin) that is prepared for writing on both sides.

A Handwritten Bible and Computer Technology – More Detail

This handwritten Bible was created using state-of-the-art technology; one unique application is in the Book of Psalms. Mr. Jackson and his staff elected to illuminate Psalms in a very different way—taking musical recordings of the Psalms, including Gregorian Chants by the monks of Saint John’s, as well as recordings from other sacred texts, and converting them into a digital format with colorful patterns and wave formations displayed on a computer monitor called digital voice prints. The digital voice prints were photographed and captured by Mr. Jackson. He then created artistic renderings of these color patterns and incorporated them into choir books that appear at the beginning of the five books of Psalms. He also scattered these “virtual voice prints” throughout the Book of Psalms.  

A Monastic Tradition – More Detail

Since its formation in the sixth century, Benedictine monasticism has been an important source for the production and the preservation of books. It was through the Benedictines’ painstaking efforts during the Middle Ages that great manuscripts, not only Bibles and prayer books, but also great works of philosophy and science, were preserved for future generations. 

“What is most remarkable is 500 years after the invention of printing, a Benedictine community is commissioning a Bible on the scale and size that it would have been 800 years ago,” said Dr. Christopher de Hamel, a manuscript historian and director of The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England. “This is an artistic project that has taken the scribe and his collaborators over a dozen years, but I think we should look upon it as something on the scale of a huge building project as it would have been in the Middle Ages. It’s rare now to get any artistic endeavor that extends over a period as long as that.”

Saint John’s University is connected to this tradition through the various book arts programs they sponsor, including the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), its art collection known as Arca Artium, and Special Rare Book Collections at Saint John’s. Saint John’s is a national and international center for the book, art, and religious culture whose mission is to search out and preserve manuscripts, rare books and works of art of religious and cultural importance, and to promote the study of these materials and the scholarship related to them.

Since its founding in 1965, HMML has sent teams of researchers and technicians to film more than 31 million pages from nearly 130,000 volumes in libraries and archives throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Today, HMML represents one of the largest and most comprehensive archives of medieval and Renaissance sources in the world. More than a repository of manuscripts, HMML is one of the most highly regarded research libraries in medieval studies in the country.

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Media contact: Kirstin Pires

The Chazen Museum of Art is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The museum is located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The main entrance is accessible to wheelchairs. Parking is available at the City of Madison State Street Campus Ramp (entrances on Frances and Lake streets) and under University Square. Hourly parking is available in the UW lot 46 with credit card payment. Evening and weekend parking is also available in UW lot 83 under Fluno Center, entrance on Frances Street, and in UW lot 7 under Grainger Hall, entrance on Brooks Street. The Chazen will provide sign language interpreters for associated programs by three-week advance request to Anne Lambert, Curator of Education, weekdays, (608) 263-4421 (voice). Information is also available by visiting our website at

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