Tag Archives: Saint John’s Bible

My new article on The Saint John’s Bible.

After some months of showing and admiring The Saint John’s Bible, some months ago I wondered if I could find any of Donald Jackson’s better work so I could connect it with this amazing illuminated Bible. I approached the people at Saint John’s University, the patron of The Saint John’s Bible, to see if they would be interested in a short piece for The Scribe, the newsletter of the project. My piece was published recently, and it looks good! (Read here.)

"Crucifixion" in Luke

“Crucifixion” in Luke

Now, Donald Jackson is a god in the English-language calligraphy world. First, for many decades he was (and may still be, for all I know) the official calligrapher for the Royal Crown. (He’s British.) Also, working with this Bible has gotten me in touch with some local calligraphers, including Cari Ferraro who herself wrote a piece on this Bible. Every calligrapher I have met speaks with Jackson with a certain awe. The man is a prodigy who started calligraphy formally at 13. Yet by all reports, he is also very down to earth and supportive of young talent.

Still, because he built his fame in the pre-internet age, he does not have a website. So I had a heck of a time finding any of his earlier work. The only thing I could find was a catalogue of a 1988 exhibition of his work called Painting With Words. (Coincidentally, both Cari and my calligraphy teacher saw the exhibit, which came to Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art.) Thankfully, this catalog has a few pieces that reminded me quite a bit of some of Jackson’s illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible.

I just posted my article on my Academia page—go read it if you are interested.

What I’ve been up to lately: The Saint John’s Bible and Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

The GTU’s academic calendar does intersession, which means that apart from one week of crazy intersession madness, I have been off of school. I’ve been taking this time to prepare my conference paper for next month’s “Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty” conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Although my “guild” is biblical studies, I’m attending this Conference on Christianity and Literature conference because it has a special focus on the Saint John’s Bible. If you haven’t heard about the Saint John’s Bible, well, let me tell you – it’s a treat. And I get to show it as part of my work at SCU Archives and Special Collections.

Although there is much publicity on the project, there is very little analysis or critique of it. I basically read all of it – a few journal articles here and there. There are two books that go through each illumination and give some background, explain visual allusions, and meditate on them. These two books, one by Susan Sink and the other by Michael Patella, are very good. They focus on the intentions behind the art, what the artists and theologians creating this Bible meant. I use them all the time in figuring out what illuminations to show people.

What has not taken place yet is a thorough evaluation of this Bible and what it means as a milestone in contemporary biblical interpretation. We have the statements from the artists of what they think their art means – which is amazing considering we don’t have such documentation from all the famous medieval illuminated Bibles like the Book of Kells or the Winchester Bible. And while all biblical art – heck, every physical copy of Bible – is to some extent a theological interpretation, this Bible is especially so. The artists working on it were advised by a team of theologians and biblical scholars who sent them lengthy packets covering which passages to illuminate, current scholarship and prayerful reflection on those passages, and ideas on how to illuminate them.

But as of now, we have a lot of “wow!” and not much critique or analysis. As a graduate student in biblical studies and someone intimately familiar with this Bible from showing it to over 150 people in classes, churches, and community groups, I felt called to contribute to this analysis.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John's Bible this is one of the "show-stopper" illuminations.

Frontispiece to Matthew: Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus. When I show the Saint John’s Bible this is one of the “show-stopper” illuminations.

Specifically, I am writing about New Testament illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. This Bible was created by Catholics – specifically Benedictines – and we have a boatload of ecclesial statements since Nostra Aetate laying out right relationship with Jews, theologians engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and parish-level work cultivating bonds between church and synagogue. (When I was Catholic, my church was right next door to a synagogue!) This has seeped into New Testament scholarship emphasizing the Jewish elements of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (Think of the “New Perspective on Paul” and The Jewish Annotated New Testament).

So does the Saint John’s Bible reflect this new approach to Judaism? Is it an effective tool for dialogue between Jews and Christians? Do any of its illuminations still unwittingly reproduce Christian polemic against Jews?

Yes, yes, and yes. And that’s my paper in a nutshell.

This is my first major writing project since my two senior theses, and I’m refining how I’m working on it. Mainly (1) I’m trying to be more rooted in primary sources before I dive into the murky waters of scholarly commentary; (2) I am using Zotero which saves a LOT of time; and (3) I am writing much earlier in the project. Writing helps me think. After reading the primary sources and deciding which illuminations I want to use, I wrote a “draft 0” that just lays out the very broad outline. I’ve found it works better for me to write crap and revise it like crazy than to store thoughts in my head forever and write something perfect.

This project works well with how I think – very interdisciplinary. I’m bringing together New Testament scholarship, Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly on liturgy and scripture, and work on art as biblical interpretation, or what Martin O’Kane calls “visual exegesis.”

Through it all, I’m trying to ask: How would a Jew steeped in scripture see these illuminations? Once I get this good enough to show to another human being, I will ask a few of my Jewish mentors. But until then I’m trying to imagine how it would feel for someone to tell me that their religion perfects and completes mine, and that I am, so to speak, only the beta test. Then I remembered, um, every conversation I’ve had with a Muslim friend about Jesus. That might be a bit similar.

Book Review: Envisioning the Book of Judith, Andrea Scheaffer.

This past spring, my art history professor, Kathleen Maxwell, gave a presentation to the classics department on her research into Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. She mentioned something offhand that stuck with me: when studying these manuscripts, the art historians tend to only look at the art and the biblical scholars tend only to look at the text, mainly for text-critical purposes. The sad result of our disciplinary boundaries is that we often don’t understand these manuscripts, which were created as a unification of art and text.

sheafferI’ve since seen what she meant as I have been researching the Saint John’s Bible, trying to find biblical scholars engaging with art as visual exegesis of scripture. So I was pleased to find Judith Scheaffer’s book, Envisioning the Book of Judith: How Art Illuminates Minor Characters, which combines literary readings of minor characters in the book of Judith with analysis of Renaissance art depicting Judith. Each painting’s treatment of these minor characters serves as a springboard for the close literary readings she performs of these books. So in various chapters, she analyzes Achor, Judith’s maidservant, the Israelite crowd, Bagoas, and Holofernes. She digs deep to find how each of these characters moves the plot along and contributes to the central message of the text. I am impressed with how well she integrated the two modes of analysis, particularly since this book was based on a dissertation. (Let’s be honest: dissertation-books are often clunky and not much fun to read!)

Scheaffer left me with a series of questions to think about as I read up on Saint John’s Bible material. These are taken from page 9:

  • How does the art enable us to ‘see’ something we may have ignored in the textual narrative
  • How does the art illuminate or add to an aspect of the biblical character or text as a whole
  • How does the art alert the viewer to something important that is glossed over in the text?
  • Have artists ‘read’ the text in a different way from scholars or other readers and so present a different visual interpretation?
  • Lastly, how does our encounter with the visual representation of a character influence the way we read the narrative?

Sheaffer also pointed me toward other scholarship combining art history and biblical scholarship. I may be biased since she earned her Ph.D. at my school and now works as Director of Admissions here (we emailed back and forth when I was applying!), but I found this book useful for opening new avenues of investigation. I’m adding it to my methodological toolkit.