McGrath Institute for Church Life celebrates Saint John’s Bible

Prior to the advent of the printing press, the otherworldly beauty of illuminated manuscripts shed light on the so-called “Dark Ages” of Medieval Europe. These manuscripts were most commonly produced in monasteries, where monks would painstakingly transcribe texts, frequently the words of Scripture, onto handmade sheets of parchment or paper.

Faster and more efficient printing technologies gradually developed, however, and the scribe’s function became obsolete. In fact, the last time a Benedictine community commissioned a Bible was in the early 1500’s.

Until 1998, that is.

In a project that took 15 years and a 23-person team to complete, Donald Jackson, Welsh calligrapher and official scribe of the Queen of England, illuminated a Bible commissioned by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Called the Saint John’s Bible, the finished project includes seven handwritten volumes, 1,130 pages, and 160 images corresponding to the text.

Tim Ternes, the director of the Saint John’s Bible Project, spoke at Notre Dame on January 25 in an event sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life. The event followed Jackson’s visit to Notre Dame, which occurred last October. The Institute is pleased to host the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition at Notre Dame throughout 2017.

Ternes addressed a sizable crowd in the Eck Visitors Center as he recounted the story of the production of the Saint John’s Bible. His presentation included images from Jackson’s artwork and engaged the audience in a discussion of the significance of artistic, theological, and anthropological meaning of the work.

The text and the images invite readers to contemplation, Ternes explained. The sheer size of the Bible, which is too large for a single person to handle comfortably, requires that the volume be read in community. “The Saint John’s Bible is not a picture book. This is not an illustrated Bible. These artworks … are designed to be invitations into the Scriptures for you to come together with others.”

The goal of the project, he continued, was not to recreate the Medieval experience of illuminating a Bible. Rather, it was to create a 21st century Bible in the 21st century. “These passages are all designed to bring the Scriptures into the modern world.”

One characteristic of the Saint John’s Bible that is particular to the 21st century is the incorporation of modern science, Ternes explained, displaying a page from the Book of Psalms in which Jackson had artfully depicted the sound waves produced by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey chanting the Psalms on the page.

Director of the Center for Liturgy and Professor of Theology Timothy O’Malley described the significance of the Saint John’s Bible in his comments to the Rover. “The Saint John’s Bible is more than an artistic wonder, which it is, of course. It’s part of a Catholic culture that professes that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In the Saint John’s Bible, we see this presence in the script, which was handwritten by Donald Jackson and his team of artists. We see it in the illuminations that interpret the biblical narrative for us in the present day. We see it in the size of the Bible, which shows the seriousness by which we take the Word.”

In addition to displaying a volume of the Saint John’s Bible at Notre Dame this year, the Department of Theology is offering a course on the Bible and the Liturgy. O’Malley, who is co-teaching the course with Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts at Hesburgh Library and Concurrent Assistant Professor of Medieval Studies David Gura, told the Rover, “This … course is an occasion for each of us to remember that the texts that we hold so dear have been held dear by generations before us. They have been passed onto us at a significant cost to those who are our forebears in faith.”

Grace Agolia, a senior theology major, is enrolled in the course with O’Malley and Gura. In a conversation with the Rover, she described her corresponding interests in the theology she is learning in her coursework and artwork produced by Donald Jackson. “It’s amazing to apply what we’ve learned in handling 800-year old manuscripts to our reading of the [Saint] John’s Bible, which appropriated these medieval calligraphic techniques and artistry on vellum,” Agolia explained. “At the same time, the Bible incorporates images that resonate with modern readers, such as DNA strands, cosmology, soundwave imaging, ethnic identities, local flora and fauna, effects of genocide and terrorism, and acknowledgement of the roots shared by the Christian, Judaic, and Islamic faith traditions.”

As Agolia’s comments suggest, the magnificence of the Saint John’s Bible lies not only in the beauty of Jackson’s artwork, but also in the power of the calligraphy and the images to provide modern-day readers with insight into the text and, ultimately, to encounter the Word of God.

The Church venerates the Scriptures because, through Scripture, God expresses Himself completely to man in Christ, the Word. In the grandeur and complexity of the Saint John’s Bible, word and image serve to reignite the Christian imagination of the 21st century. “Christianity isn’t just an idea,” O’Malley concluded. “It’s not just a personal and individual encounter with Jesus Christ. Rather, it’s always an encounter mediated through relationships with the communion of saints. The Saint John’s Bible, beloved by Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis alike, is a reminder that Catholicism exists because it is concerned about the renewal of all culture.”

Nicole O’Leary is a junior Theology and Italian major who has enjoyed learning about the importance of rose-colored ink for Medieval scribes in her Bible and Liturgy class. She plans on printing all future editions of her Rover articles in rose. Contact her at