This is part two of my St. John’s Bible post. If you’d like to read about its history and to see some of the other illuminations, the first post is here. There are 160 illuminations and there were 17 of them on tour at the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs. We attended a wonderful lecture by Sr. Irene, a member of the creative Committee on Illuminations and Text that brought this work to life. I share some of her insights and a few of my own ponderings as well.
The 10 Commandments- Exodus 20
This illumination contains lots of words. The 10 commandments were written on stone by the finger of God and it was the first time the revelation of God was given in written form. God says, your carved gods are not ok but here I am, revealed in the written word. Most people were illiterate so this brought a significant shift in the history of writing.
It was the most significant religious event in history up to that point. It is yet another re-creation story. Into an anarchic world of oppression and cruelty, God bursts in to bring order into the chaos once again.
The images recall the Israelites’ story: the burning bush, the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, and their exodus through the Red Sea. There are 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
The bottom of picture reflects the sense of chaos that is always pressing in around us but God there too. In its midst you can just make out the words “I am the Lord your God”.
The Nativity Story – Luke 2
This illumination is from the nativity passage in Luke. Once again, God moves into chaos and brings new life. You may notice that the one person not clearly present here is the infant Jesus. Sr. Irene told us that the artist offered several trial sketches of the baby, but none felt right. Finally, he decided not to portray the baby at all, but instead bathed him in descending light in order to to bring to mind the incarnation. Heaven came down to earth.
The ox is from a Neolithic cave painting in France and is a nod to early Christian writers who often used an ox as a symbol for Luke. The ram is a foreshadowing of sacrifice. The shepherds are mostly women and children, which was apparently the norm in that day. My favorite part of the nativity story has always been the presence of these humble (and often despised) people, being amongst the first along with the strange Magi to see Christ in this world.
In this illumination of the raising of Lazarus we are given a new perspective. We are not outside the tomb weeping and waiting. We are inside the tomb awakening to the tunnel of white light beaming from the outside. At its center is Jesus. Do you choose life or do you choose to stay dead?
The beautiful words of John 1 recall the Creation story. In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Here we see the figure of Jesus stepping out of eternity into time. The figure seems unfinished, because incarnation is ongoing as Christ is being formed in each one of us. We are his incarnation now. Transformation, beauty, order, life is called out of chaos (both in and outside of us) once again.
The images of the universe surrounding him were taken by the Hubble telescope.
The Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1.
The Spirit once again is hovering over the waters. The heavens are opened and humanity is created anew. There is a hint of the birth of the Church, seen in a gold stamp in the background. In the foreground John the Baptist is a large figure, moving away. Jesus is golden and small in the background, bringing to mind the verse, “I must decrease so he may increase.” I don’t know if this was intended here but in iconography, the true perspective is always from heaven’s point of view. So the larger, closer figures as seen through our perspective are actually lesser than the ones that are further away. Jesus then, is the Center of the Story. “This is My Son, with whom I am pleased.”
The book of Mark is fast paced. After the baptism Jesus is immediately sent out into the desert to be tempted. We see that demons are already present to tempt him. The angels are ready and waiting to minister to him.
An illumination from the book of Acts. You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth… How far is the end of the earth? Here, it goes out into the universe. We see it is filled with crosses, literally crammed with heaven, and God’s presence fills it all. All things will be made new.
These are but a few of my favorites and this Bible is not even fully finished! There are far too many to write about here and you simply must see them for yourself and bring your own eyes to these pages. I’d love to hear about it when you do.
In the mean time, here is the link so you can page through it for yourself.