Recently I was invited to attend a writing workshop at Collegeville Institute, which resides on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The workshop was a transformative experience for me, much of which I am still processing. I’m trying to write about what happened through the workshop experience, but putting those thoughts out in the open air will take some time.
Besides being at the writing workshop, the campus of Saint John’s had many benefits; one being that our workshop group of twelve members was given a private viewing of the Saint John’s Illuminated Bible.
The bible is kept in an environmentally controlled vault. Tim Ternes, the Director of the Saint John’s Bible, met us outside the building where the bible is kept below ground level. He laughingly told us he was going to treat us like first graders and asked us to wash our hands; we were going to be able to touch the Saint John’s Bible. After we washed our hands thoroughly, we entered the vault through a security door that had a 60-second timer before it automatically closed. Once inside, we had to remove our jackets, sweaters, and handbags and back packs. All these precautions were required because we were going to be within inches of this priceless bible.
The Saint John’s Illuminated Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated bible that has been created in last 500 years. The project began in 1998, taking fifteen years it was finished in 2011, at an estimated cost of $8 million dollars. Artist Donald Jackson created a new script for use on the bible (using the New Revised Standard Version in English) and oversaw the work of seven calligraphers and artists. The bible is not illustrated, as in pictures designed to re-create a scene, but instead the bible is illuminated, meaning the artwork enhances the symbolic expressions of the written word.
The book is two feet high and three feet wide. That’s the standard size of an easel pad of paper. The bible was written on over three hundred pieces of vellum. Vellum was used for its historic and artistic value. Each side of vellum contains two pages, four pages per piece of vellum for a total of 1150 bible pages. Each piece of vellum weighs approximately two-three pounds. The artists used a unique 19th century Chinese ink for the calligraphy and the artwork pieces are combinations of vibrant colored ink and 24-karat gold.
The bible is currently unbound. If it were bound, the bible would easily weigh over 500 pounds. The book was made so large to emphasize that the bible was never intended for one individual but instead for the entire community.
The theologian’s and the artist’s intent of using calligraphy and illumination is to bring the word of God alive on the page. I’ve seen the Book of Kells in Ireland. I’ve seen famous art and artifacts in some of the best museums in the world, but there was always glass or space between the artwork and me. But, when we had this rare opportunity to view Saint John’s Bible, nothing stood between the art and us. The colors were brilliant, the art gave depth and new meaning to the scriptural stories—the illuminated bible is a living thing that gives the ancient words a twenty-first century understanding. The illuminations offer us new words to describe our experience of the divine.
For me, there are two illuminations in the Saint John’s bible that provide a symbolic representation of the central images of Christianity—the crucifixion and the resurrection. The illumination is found in the Gospel of Luke and the resurrection in the Gospel of John (The Saint John’s Bible: Gospels and Acts). https://www.saintjohnsbible.org/Explore.aspx?VID=1&ID=9
Set against one another, these pieces of art disrupt our commonly held views of the events of crucifixion and resurrection. Typically, we think of the crucifixion being the darkest moment in the Christian story. We often think of this scene in the dark hues of a terrible storm at its apex. The crucifixion is when Jesus died on the cross and the writers of the gospels put the psalmist’s words into his mouth. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The scene is filled with storms, abandonment, and death.
In contrast, we have imagined the resurrection to be the moment when the shining light of Christ bursts forth in a moment of victory over death. In the Episcopal Church our vestments on Easter are filled with gold in order to give us that feeling.
The illuminations of the Saint John’s Bible, however, do their best to disturb these commonly held views of the crucifixion and the resurrection.
In the Saint John’s Bible, the crucifixion, instead of being dark and foreboding, is depicted in the brilliant light of pure gold. The gold is thick, raised off the page, bringing the crucified Christ into three dimensions. This scene is the most brilliant of any page in the Saint John’s Bible.
In contrast to the brilliant light of the crucifixion scene, the resurrection is depicted in dark blues. Here, we only see the hooded Christ figure from the back. We do see the face of Mary Magdalene, who is clad in a deep red robe. The only gold we see in this scene is on the hands of Mary Magdalene.
Why are these scenes depicted in such paradoxical contrast? I think what we are seeing is what Jesus has taught us. At the moment of the cross, God became human in order to experience pain and death. God is present in the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, those who are imprisoned, the alien among us—God is present in the suffering of the cross. God is present in the humiliation of the cross. God is present in the death of the cross. Through God’s experience of human suffering and death—God can then fully experience our pain and suffering. God is not absent in our pain and suffering—actually that is when God is most present.
And what about the resurrection, where is God in that scene? God is present now in the hands Mary—the one who will carry the good news that God is among us in our suffering and pain—and God is present in us as we live out this good news in the twenty-first century. We are now the twenty-first century Mary Magdalene. Now our hands are covered with the gold of the presence of God, the God who has been present to us in our own crucifixion is the God that we carry as a healing agent into the world’s suffering.
Sisters and brothers do not shy aware from the suffering of the cross. Instead, lean into the soul gold we find from God’s presence at the margins of life, because at those times we experience loss, suffering, pain, abandonment, death—there we will discover a true golden resurrection moment.