Saint John's Bible comes to the Biggs

Ashton Brown
Posted 12/2/15

DOVER — This weekend brings with it a new addition to the Biggs Museum of American Art — “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” a 70-page excerpt of the handmade Saint John’s …

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Saint John's Bible comes to the Biggs


DOVER — This weekend brings with it a new addition to the Biggs Museum of American Art — “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” a 70-page excerpt of the handmade Saint John’s Bible.

Until now, the closest the Saint John’s Bible has been to the First State is Baltimore. The Biggs stop is most likely the one and only stop it will make on the Delmarva Peninsula as the Bible is planned to be bound in seven volumes within the next decade.

The Saint John’s Bible isn’t what one typically would think of when contemplating a Bible. Unlike a traditional Bible, its pages are almost larger than life (each page is 2 by 3 feet), adorned with beautiful illustrations and handwritten text.

“This definitely isn’t the type of Bible you have in your house or that you’d find in a hotel nightstand,” Tim Ternes, director of Saint John’s University’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. “It’s something special and very unique.”

Saint John’s, in Collegeville, Minnesota, commissioned the project.

The techniques used to create the Saint John’s Bible date back at least 600 years. The entire Bible is written and illustrated on vellum (parchment made from calf skin) while the letters were handwritten using quills of turkeys, swans and geese with soot-based solid ink (the ink used for Bibles in the 1870s).

Mr. Ternes said the lettering alone used six calligraphers and each page took between seven and 13 hours to complete — a lengthy task considering the Saint John’s Bible includes all 73 books of the New and Old testaments, totaling 1,130 pages.

To ensure a cohesive look with the text, lead scribe Donald Jackson developed an alphabet which each calligrapher practiced before beginning the project. Luckily, thanks to the use of vellum, small mistakes could be corrected by scraping off a thin layer of the skin.

Small differences between the individual calligraphers are nearly invisible to the untrained eye but experts like Mr. Ternes can see the subtle differences, most noticeable in each scribe’s ascenders and descenders (parts of the letter above and below the main line of writing).

But the writing is only half the show — the artwork seen on each page was painted with casein (a protein-based paint) and 24-karat gold, silver and platinum.

The small “The Book of Hours,” created in the 1400s, also will be on display. Its creators used the same methods at the makers of the Saint John’s Bible. “The Book of Hours” demonstrates the lasting techniques used through the crisp and vibrant text and illustrations that remain more than 600 years after the book’s production.

“This is a book that wasn’t kept in a museum and you can see how well it has held up and it’s been hundreds of years,” Mr. Ternes said.

Since the Saint John’s Bible is on a much larger scale than “The Book of Hours,” the use of metals with the art adds a whole new element to the work.

“We never show the image of God, but since man was made in the image of God, some of the pages are reflective enough that you can actually see yourself, which gives the viewer something to think about,” Mr. Ternes said.

There are also some depictions of people including replicas of African cave paintings thousands of years old and ambiguous male and female characters painted in atypical colors.

“You see the use of brown, blue and even gold, so you look at the painting and you don’t know if these people are Asian, African or European, it’s very inclusive and represents people of many faiths and backgrounds,” Mr. Ternes said.

The illustrations all integrate modern images along with traditional aspects, and that’s no coincidence — each illustration was planned out through an extensive collaboration between a committee at Saint John’s University and the artists themselves; a back and forth process that took between four and eight months for each illustration.

The illustrations in the book of Psalms are more than art, they incorporate the sound wave patterns of monks chanting the individual psalms horizontally while the sound wave patterns of the psalms recited in Arabic and Hebrew are displayed vertically throughout the art.

Sound waves aren’t the only modern visual incorporation. DNA is one of the more notable incorporations in a painting representing Christ’s family tree which is shaped like a menorah with the names written in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin characters bringing together the cultures of both Christians and non-Christians.

Each page has at least a small amount of art incorporated and it took 23 artists to complete the work.

The project took an astounding 15 years of writing and painting to complete and the Biggs Museum is the 23rd stop in its international journey which has gone through Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Seventy pages from the Bible will be on display at the Biggs until Easter.

Admission to the exhibit is $10, $8 for those older than 60 and free for museum members, children younger than 10, active military and family.

The museum, at 406 Federal St., is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit opens Friday.

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