My love for books and words began early in life. I remember a gift from my beloved godmother, my Nina, when I was around nine or ten. She knew that I was ‘a bit’ precocious, and so she gifted me with a Catholic Dictionary. Now, folks, this was not the dumbed down version for kids! This was the real thing. The book was beautifully printed and thick. I spent endless hours learning about ‘transubstantiation,’ ‘iconoclasts,’ and ‘mystogogy.’ There was power in these strange and wonderful words. That book continued to be a wonderful companion through my years in the seminary.
My love for books continued and was endlessly fed when I went to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. Both the College, now sadly closed, and the graduate school in Theology, had fine libraries. The Theology library housed the then famous Doheny Collection of rare books that included a rare copy of the Gutenburg Bible. There was also an incredible collection of first editions of many classics in English literature. The beauty of words combined with beautiful printing and binding was a thrill to both read and see.
All of this most probably fed my ongoing love for illuminated manuscripts. Prior to the invention of movable type, the Scriptures and liturgical books were meticulously and exquisitely done by hand. Scribes, more often than not, monks, who labored for months in monastic scriptoria, created incredibly elaborate manuscripts with illuminated decorations. Not only were the ‘words’ themselves an avenue to communicate the life-giving truths of the scriptures, but the imagery combined with the words became ‘evangelization in art.’ However, the invention of the printing press saw the radical decline in hand illuminated manuscripts. Utility and practicality trumped the laborious intensity of hand crafting these gems.
To mark the turn of the millennium, St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota was inspired to commission a herculean project – the first completely hand written and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press.
The Saint John’s Bible is divided into seven volumes and is two feet tall by three feet wide when open. The Bible is made of vellum, with 160 illuminations. The version of the Bible used is the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE). A copy of the Bible has been presented to Pope Francis at the Vatican in several volumes, with the final volume being presented on 17 April 2015.
The following video gives a flavor of this incredible project.