Seeing With the Heart: The St. John’s Bible tour, pt. 1

This weekend my husband and I were fortunate enough to see an exhibit of the St. John’s Bible at the Benet Hill Monastery down in Colorado Springs. This Bible is the first handwritten and hand painted work commissioned by the Benedictines in 500 years. It is a work of theology and a work of art.

All of the text is done in beautiful calligraphy, with a script designed just for this project. There are 160 works of art designed in prayerful response to scripture passages. Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, 
(Chair of the SJB Committee on Illumination and Text) says, “The illuminations are not illustrations. They are spiritual meditations on a text. It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.” Simply put, they are stunning. They are thresholds. If you love art and if you love the scriptures, these illuminations will feed your soul.

This experience does what a reading of the Bible is meant to do. We were stirred up into awe, wonder, worship, and surprise. Our souls quickened in delight. We were challenged and even offended as our small view of God and large view of ego was exposed. We rediscovered that our Bible is indeed a living text. Kathleen Norris has noted, “Most people don’t know what is in the Bible and when they find out, they become unglued.” We are never left unchanged. This encounter with the scriptures wooed us to the larger story that encompasses everything and everyone.

The monks who commissioned this Bible wanted it to reflect the Benedictine values of hospitality, justice and love. They hope it will enhance our engagement with the biblical text and with the arts. The illuminations are designed to reflect God’s all-embracing presence and His unending welcome that is offered to the whole world. They emphasize women, neglected peoples, and the poor. At the heart of it all is God’s global message of hope for all time, for all peoples, for all generations, and over all history.

Aram remarked that it’s so rare to see anyone have a long vision for a project such as this anymore. This Bible began about 12 years ago and will be completed sometime in 2011. In contrast, our culture demands immediate answers and immediate results. We don’t know how to wait. We dismiss the value of memory and time. Cathedrals used to take generations to build. Talk about job security and economic stability! We have forgotten how to work for something greater than ourselves to benefit generations that we may never meet this side of heaven. Monastics do everything prayerfully and slowly. I am grateful to them for this.

Below, I share some of what we learned from the lecture that we attended at the monastery. It was taught by Sr. Irene, a kick-ass nun and theologian from the Committee on Illustration and Text for St. John’s Bible. The images that I have posted here are obviously not as clear as they are up close and in person but I hope they speak to you. The Benedictines say, “Listen with the ear of your heart.” As we learned the practice of Visio Divina they added, “See with the eyes of your heart, too.”  And Sr. Irene gave us much freedom in our gazing by saying, “If you see it, it’s in there.”

Just FYI: Gold always represents God.

Creation (Genesis 1)
The seven panels represent the seven days of creation, of course. The panels are rough and unfinished on the edges, reminding us that creation is still happening. It’s a work in progress, and so are we. We are also reminded that God always brings order, beauty and life out of chaos. Day 3, when vegetation and plant life come into being, there is a satellite image of the Ganges River Delta. On day 5 when the waters are called to team with life, the artists included ancient fish fossils. On day six, the drawings of people are from aboriginal cave drawings from Africa and Australia. Gold (representing God) is present throughout of course, increasing to Day 7. Creation and re-creation is an overarching theme throughout the whole Bible.

The Genealogy of Jesus (from the Gospel of Matthew)
The Menorah is designed to recall the panels of the days of Creation as well as the tree of life. The Menorah is a symbol of Judaism, the people from whom Jesus was born. There are patterns of DNA molecules throughout, reminding us of His humanity. The Menorah was also the design of the lamp that lit the temple as described in Zechariah. Jesus is the Light.

The gold designs at the top of the piece are from the Koran. The circle (mandala) underneath is an Asian design. Within the menorah itself are all the names of the ancestors of Jesus. They included the names of all the women in His ancestry, not just the ones included in Matthew. The name of Hagar, second wife of Abraham and mother of Ishmael, is written in English, Hebrew and Arabic, for she is the mother of the Arab peoples. Christ is for us all.

The five “books” of the Psalms (divided up by some scribe way back when) each have a frontispiece that looks like a Torah scroll. They also look like painted Japanese screens. (There was an Asian art expert on the committee.) There are gold squares and designs all over, reminding us that Christ is present throughout. Gregorian chant notes were also represented by squares, so they reflect the heritage of the church age as well.

What is especially intriguing are the small squiggles throughout the scroll. These are actual digital voice prints of the Monks of St. John’s Abbey singing the Psalms. There also are voice prints of the monks singing a Native American song, and sacred songs from Hindu, Jewish, Taoist, Greek, and Buddhist traditions and probably some more that I am forgetting. It is indeed a living text. It is the tradition of Benedictine hospitality to honor all those who pray.

Luke’s “Anthology”

This piece reflects many parables that are unique to Luke. The first one is the woman who lost a valuable coin and looks everywhere for it. When she finds it, she throws a party. There are hints of angels in that panel, ready to rejoice with her. Sr. Irene reminded us that a larger theme of the book of Luke is the fact that Jesus ate with the wrong people. Often in His stories he says in effect, “You think I eat with the wrong people? My Father throws parties for them!”

Another panel shows the story of the prodigal son. The familiar characters are there – the returning son, the older brother, the running father, the pigs. Sr. Irene remarked that the mother seems to be missing from this story. But she relates a favorite tale which says that the mother was absent because she was busy fattening the calf for the party to come, polishing the ring and then is looking out and about for her son. The mother remarks, “And his father thinks this just happened!”

What is particularly moving is that all the stories are in diagonal panels of gold, leading upward to Jesus. These are stories about restoration and forgiveness. In the panel with the prodigal are the New York City World Trade Center Twin Towers, also in gold. This panel was being painted during the fall of 2001 after the 9-11 tragedies. They were included to offer the message that forgiveness is the way to move forward. Indeed, the very last panel which portrays Mary and Martha reveals the words “Only one thing is necessary” as all move towards Jesus. Forgiveness.

The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) “I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live.”
This is a particularly gripping work. The artists did not want to go towards “The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone” or “dem bones” types of imagery. The skulls and bones are reminiscent of mass graves. There are images that evoke the picture of the heap of eyeglasses seen at the Holocaust Museum. There is a watchtower. There are also junk and old cars, depicting throw-away people, used and abused by others. The oil from the old cars reveals a rainbow with flecks of gold. Even here, God is present. There are rainbows of promise overhead, filled with colors, filled with God. I ask you, can these bones live?

I will post part two later this week. Go here to page through this Bible yourself!

“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.” ~Donald Jackson, Artistic Director, St, John’s Bible

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Showing 4 comments
  • Carie

    oh my! what a fabulous treasure! I would LOVE to see this someday :))
    thanks so much for sharing with us.

  • Michelle

    Thanks, Edalf! I doubt I’ll have a chance to see this in person… I’m thrilled to have a chance to see it even second-hand! As a bit of a scholar of medieval manuscripts, I have been fascinated by the articles I’ve read about this manuscript. The art really surprised me – it’s not at all what I expected, yet it’s engaging and engrossing in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’m so glad you had a chance to see it, and am grateful you’ve shared a bit of your experience here. Much love to you, my friend!

    • ellenharoutunian

      Miss you girl! I’d love to hear what you have gleaned from those articles. This committee has a medievalist on it! I though of you when I heard that. 🙂 They also wanted the art to reflect the 21st century and even Minnesota, home of the monks who commissioned it. That’s more evident in other pieces.

  • Tammy Carter

    wow…these are amazing! LOVE the idea of Visio Divina…I bet it “felt” very powerful to see! Thanks for sharing.

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