By Jonathan Homrighausen
Book Review: The Saint John’s Bible and Its Tradition: Illuminating Beauty in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Jack R. Baker, Jeffrey Bilbro, and Daniel Train
198 pp. | Published 10/8/2018 | Wipf & Stock Publishers
On May 9, 2011, calligrapher Donald Jackson scribed the final “AMEN” in The Saint John’s Bible—the first major illuminated manuscript of the complete Bible in centuries, or, as Newsweek dubbed it, “America’s Book of Kells.”1 When the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, first commissioned him to undertake this monument of art and theology, they poured into it the shared expertise of their best theologians, art historians, and Scripture scholars. Just as many different perspectives and bodies of knowledge went into the project, they hoped that it would elicit rich conversations among many different disciplines.
Since that fateful day in 2011, we still stand at the start of scholarly discourse around this Bible. The Saint John’s Bible project itself released three books explaining and exploring the project.2 But only this year have the first two book-length analyses of The Saint John’s Bible been released.3 Baker, Bilbro, and Train’s The Saint John’s Bible and Its Tradition: Illuminating Beauty in the Twenty-First Century represents a first attempt to cultivate the kind of conversations around this project that the monks of Saint John’s Abbey hoped for. This edited volume, which emerges out of a 2016 meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, showcases a diverse array: five literary scholars, a biblical scholar, an art professor, a philosopher, and two theologians. These combined voices represent a sound beginning to scholarship on this Bible. To get a flavor of the whole, I here review some of my favorite contributions.
David Lyle Jeffrey’s essay “Beauty in the Bible and the Beauty of Holiness,” the first after the introduction, sets a broader context for the meaning of beauty in Christian Scripture and theology. Examining both Hebrew and Greek terms for beauty in the Bible, he finds that not only do words for beauty appear frequently in the Old Testament, but the language is itself beautiful poetry, well-shaped even when expressing anger toward humans. His chapter ends on the crucifixion, a paradox for Christian artists: How can such an ugly scene be considered beautiful? In The Saint John’s Bible, for example, Christ on the cross is in full gold, dazzling with divine presence and light despite the human horror of that execution. This beauty is not saccharine, commercialized beauty, but “the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9), the beauty that guides the viewer to holiness.
The monastic spirituality which produced The Saint John’s Bible engages Scripture through a discipline known as lectio divina. This practice engages Holy Writ slowly, allowing the readers to bring their whole heart, mind, and imagination to the text, paying close attention to its details and its echoes throughout the whole of the canon. The scholars who advised the artists of this Bible used lectio divina as part of their brainstorming sessions, and they intended for those reading and viewing this Bible to do the same. Matthew Moser’s “Should Bibles Be Beautiful? How Beauty Teaches Us to Pray,” slowly relishes Donald Jackson’s illumination of Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, a lectio divina on the text and a visio divina of the art. In moving from lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio, Moser brings himself from noting the details of the text and the art, to slowly and patiently allowing the Holy Spirit to work in him to notice more, to unfolding the allegorical and typological potentials of the text, and finally to a transformative encounter with God behind the text. As familiar as the Bible may be, Moser finds both this Bible’s art and its technique of lectio divina reveals new spiritual fruit, new meanings, and new possibilities.
In an age of mass-produced Bibles, both printed and digital, we inhabitants of the twenty-first century often fail to grasp the particularity of Bibles in the manuscript culture of the medievals. No two medieval manuscripts are alike, and each has its own stories, not only in its contents but in its life as an artifact. Those stories often instruct as much as the text within the book itself. Jack Baker’s “The Marginal Life of Manuscripts: What The Saint John’s Bible Teaches Us through Error” examines the playful mistakes in The Saint John’s Bible. Many of these mistakes were not scratched out but incorporated into the manuscript in fun and creative ways: a bee hoisting a line of text into place with a pulley system, a dove flying a verse to its home, a lemur lifting words up. Baker shows the spiritual meaning of these mistakes.4 Through the artists’ inventiveness, they are not mere eyesores. They remind us of God’s grace and love, the grace that allows us to make mistakes into beauty. As with the corrections in the margins of this Bible, God too gives us room for margins of error. Baker reminds us that writing a manuscript of the Bible is its own spiritual practice. Meaning is not only in the product, but in the process.
To create this monumental Bible, Donald Jackson pulled together a team of some of the most well-known calligraphers living today. So far, little work has been done situating the works of these artists in their broader career arcs and unique styles. Daniel Train’s superb essay, “Picturing Words: The Gospel as Imaged Word in Thomas Ingmire’s Illuminations,” dives into Ingmire’s illuminations of the Johannine “I AM” statements and the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Train contextualizes these visual meditations in Ingmire’s forty-year career as one of the most innovative English-language calligraphers today. Ingmire’s calligraphic treatments of these famous passages not only reflect on the passages themselves, but on the nature and significance of language itself.
Though I particularly enjoyed these four essays, many of the others are quite good, covering topics ranging from social conscience in The Saint John’s Bible, to pedagogical possibilities of art and text, to how art both displays and conceals the mystery of Christ. Still, other voices are missing from this volume and from the conversation around this Bible as a whole. There is much work to be done on this project by scholars of art and religion, by students of medieval manuscripts, and by those well-versed in biblical scholarship. All of the images in this volume are in black and white. This is doubtless not the authors’ fault, but it is a small disappointment nonetheless. Even so, for anyone interested in the splendor of this manuscript project, I heartily recommend this volume.
 https://www.newsweek.com/americas-book-kells-156629.  Christopher Calderhead, Illuminating the Word: The Making of The Saint John’s Bible, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015); Susan Sink, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013); Michael Patella, Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013).  One of them is my own: Jonathan Homrighausen, Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018).  For a list, see Sink, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible, 339–42.
Jonathan Homrighausen, a PhD student in Old Testament at Duke University, is author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Liturgical Press, 2018). He earned his MA in Biblical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley), where he spent a good deal of time studying Judaism and Islam. Inspired by The Saint John’s Bible, he is also (by his estimation) a very amateur calligrapher.