Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2009
The Saint John's Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods
Exhibition schedule: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, February 15, 2009–May 24, 2009
Donald Jackson. Valley of Dry Bones (2006). Copyright 2006 The Saint John’s Bible and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, United States of America. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Saint John’s Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods treated its audience to a journey through a “Bible for the 21st century,” to quote an exhibition wall text. The project is the fruit of a decade-long collaboration undertaken by an international team of master calligraphers and a community of theologians and scholars from Saint John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. This exhibition was the first to place selected pages from the seven-volume Saint John’s Bible within the broader context of the book arts through time and across world cultures. The 22 bifolio openings displayed here, selected from a book that will number 1,150 pages upon its anticipated completion in 2010, appeared alongside nearly 40 of the most beautiful volumes of manuscripts and fine, printed books from the Walters Art Museum collection, as well as masterpieces of contemporary calligraphy. Upon the Saint John’s Bible’s completion in 2010, the Walters and Saint John’s University intend to tour a modified version of this exhibition, which will include leaves from all seven volumes and books from the Walters.

The Walters exhibition explored the rich tradition of book production that informs the Saint John’s Bible: in particular, the materials used to make illuminated manuscripts, the process of page design, techniques and modes of lettering and illumination, and the expressive potential of word and image. To explain the art of book illumination, the exhibition included displays of pigments, writing implements, and a variety of parchment that would have been stocked by a medieval scriptorium, along with a film documenting the scribes of the Saint John’s Bible at work as they embellish the text with expressive lettering and colorful illuminations. Several examples of preliminary mock-ups, displayed alongside finished pages from the Saint John’s Bible, illustrated the labor-intensive process that ensued when quill and paintbrush, gesso and gold leaf were put to parchment in an age that preceded digital books and hypertext documents.

This exhibition compelled its audience to consider different approaches to page design and the challenges of embellishing word and image to communicate meaning. Design and the limitations—or possibilities—of technology, challenges familiar to today’s web page designers, have always played a major role in the production of books. The variety of strategies that characterizes the mise-en-page of the leaves from the Saint John’s Bible made an interesting comparison with pages from other books in the Walters collection, such as the vertical format of a fifteenth-century Koran, with its densely painted arabesques, or a nineteenth-century Buddhist text whose horizontal, “accordion book” format sets the stage for a spare arrangement of mystical elephants that tread among the words. A copy of William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) illustrated the nineteenth-century history of book design, a history coinciding with the Gothic Revival and a resurgence of interest in medieval books. Although over a century divides Morris’s printed masterpiece from the hand-illuminated Saint John’s Bible, both draw inspiration from the methods and design of the medieval manuscript tradition as well as early printed books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while each commented, in its own fashion, on the challenges of modernity.

In the history of illuminated manuscripts and printed books, the translation of the Bible reaffirms the Word as much as it transforms it into a form that speaks the visual and cultural language of its own time and place. According to its Benedictine patrons, the Saint John’s Bible aims to translate an ancient text—and an ancient art form—into a book that will “revive tradition” and “ignite the spiritual imagination” of a contemporary, multi-cultural audience (exhibition wall text). The various strategies that made books visually appealing, as well as more legible, in the broader sense, to their audiences was another story told by the exhibition. To illustrate this aspect of the Saint John’s Bible, the exhibition highlighted other episodes in the dissemination of Biblical texts in their many guises and translations, including a French translation of the Song of Songs (printed in 1925) with illustrations reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s women, a seventeenth-century Bible translated into the Natick dialect of the Native American Algonquin tribe, and a fifteenth-century blockbook, the Biblia Pauperum, whose abbreviated, vernacular language of word and image aimed to present the lessons of the Old and New Testaments in a more accessible way to a wider, and often illiterate, audience. Although the Saint John’s Bible makes use of medieval materials and techniques of book production, its creators also turned to recent processes like silk-screening and digital photography to cloak the ancient words in modern dress. These technologies echo the contemporary styles and visual content woven throughout the pages, as in one example where images of the heavens, inspired by photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, frame “wisdom,” personified by a twentieth-century Palestinian woman (derived from a photograph) whose face looms in a shiny mirror of silver leaf. Over time, the silver will tarnish, a material meditation on the themes of transformation and eternity.

Unlike the other books displayed alongside it, the Saint John’s Bible is monumental, measuring approximately three-feet wide by two-feet tall. Its large scale renders it accessible to a group—such as the monastic participants in a medieval choir—and yet the graceful details throughout the book also give it an intimate quality, as in the smaller books of hours included in the exhibition. In a certain sense, the Saint John’s Bible sings: its pages evoke a performance of words and images, a polyphony of voices that convey a variety of moods, weaving romantic passages of lush sepia gardens and effervescent, golden mist from the Song of Songs with the bleak, monochromatic Valley of Dry Bones (and a wasteland of abandoned cars) from Ezekiel. As in other manuscripts and fine, printed books displayed alongside it, the written text and the illuminations of the Saint John’s Bible embellish one another. Take, for instance, Thomas Ingmire’s exultant, pyrotechnic hallelujahs, or the firm but kind tone of earthen tans and greens with which Sally Mae Joseph penned the words, “Listen to me my faithful children.” This spiritual journey of human ethos and pathos occasionally pauses with a note of humor, as when a bee hoists a line of text, an accidental omission, on a rope and pulley, to its rightful place in the Biblical passage. Similar humor frequents the marginalia of books of the distant past, as exhibition curators Benjamin Tilghman and Kathryn Gerry pointed out in an adjoining example from a medieval manuscript.

As a whole, the Walters exhibition elucidated the poetic art of calligraphy and book illumination, calling into question the modern, and predominantly Western, view that regards calligraphy and the book arts as applied, rather than fine, arts. Masterpieces of contemporary calligraphy scattered throughout the exhibition, including Sheila Waters’s Timeline Triptych (1986) and Julian Waters’s Monolith (2001), which experiment with the expressive potential of the alphabet as art form, not only reflected the legacy of medieval book illumination and early printing for calligraphy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but they also recalled the close link between form and content in both painting and the poetic art of lettering. Considered together, the historic books, the masterpieces of modern calligraphy, and the pages from the Saint John’s Bible suggested the blurred boundaries between word and image, an aspect that illustrated books share with other art forms, from Bruegel’s painted Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) to the interwoven photographs and texts of Lorna Simpson.

Such a laborious manuscript project might at first seem old-fashioned next to the fast-paced development of the internet over the same span of years that saw the creation of the Saint John’s Bible. And yet, when exhibited alongside a range of examples from the book arts, the Saint John’s Bible is a reminder of the complex ways in which human communication, in its many forms, has always confronted the limitations and advances of design and technology. The Walters exhibition also illustrated how books, over time, have met the challenge to connect in a meaningful way with diverse audiences, an aim that the Saint John’s Bible hopes to fulfill as it travels through the ages, and as future audiences experience it anew with each reading.

April Oettinger
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Goucher College

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