“Until you’ve seen it, it’s very difficult to put into words,” says Peter Sonski, which seems a playful thing to say about an exhibition titled Illuminating the Word.
But Sonski—the education, outreach and visitor services manager at the Knights of Columbus Museum, where the exhibit’s currently on display—means it earnestly, and he’s right. Even setting aside the spiritual swell that Word appears sure to catalyze in believers, words have a hard time doing justice to the artistry and scope of the project at its heart.
That project is The Saint John’s Bible, named after Saint John’s Abbey and University, the Minnesota-based Benedictine monastery that commissioned it. The handwritten and -illustrated Bible is composed of seven volumes totaling 1,127 oversized vellum pages, each measuring 15 7/8” wide and 24 1/2” high. Across most of those pages extends row after row of contemporary Biblical translation scribed by six expert calligraphers, who, in the old style, fashioned their own quills (a laborious and precise process unto itself) and prepared their own inks and pigments. Throughout the work, this script, written in a shared font at a very precise size and frequently set up by big beautiful drop cap letters, is integrated with world-class mixed-media artwork depicting interpretations of select pieces of the Bible—more than 160 of them. These works of art are “illuminated” using gold and silver leaf; according to a companion documentary film, the illuminations were added by rubbing sheets of the leaf onto embossments made of plaster, using the raised edges to cut away extra leaf and create clean forms.
Among the scenes on view at the museum is artist Donald Jackson’s extraordinary imagining of the seven-day creation story in Genesis, presented in an overlapping polyptych depicting each of those days arranged in tall narrow bars (partially pictured above). The scenes begin with a roiling cosmos sliced by a thin golden beam—let there be light!—before proceeding to crashing water, a river-snaked continent, shifting sun and moon, birds soaring above water-bound fish, earthy images of man and, finally, a placid golden representation of the seventh day’s rest.
One of the project’s more eyebrow-arching merits is that it embraces aspects of modern scientific and anthropological understanding. The humans of the sixth day’s vertical strip are represented like figures in cave drawings, with the artist having been inspired by actual specimens dating back many thousands of years. On a spread displayed nearby, Adam and Eve are shown not in the usual light-skinned, straight-haired Westernized manner but instead more authentically: as ancient people indigenous to Africa, adorned in beads and body paint. Even the serpent is given an exotic makeover, his skin bright red with thin black rings between thinner rings of beige, similar to a coral snake.
This worldliness jibes well with the commissioners’ intention that the Saint John’s Bible be ecumenical—appealing to Christians of many faiths around the world—as well as a sight worth seeing for those who don’t call themselves Christian at all. The Knights of Columbus exhibit focuses more on the people, processes and thinking behind creating each part of this one-of-a-kind Bible than it does on the scripture itself. A fascinating documentary film, viewable in a separate theater room—just ask the attendant at the front desk to cue it up for you—is illuminating indeed and a good thing to watch before jumping into the exhibit-proper. The film offers special slices of heaven when it shows the scribes at work, the tips of their quills leaving behind impossibly exacting streaks of ink.
Out the theater, back through the lobby and down the hall, several rooms of special wood-and-glass cases display the 68 pages the museum has from various parts of the Saint John’s Bible. There are also table cases containing artifacts from the production process and a nifty display holding four historic bibles dating as far back as the year 1500, in part to illustrate the effect the invention of the printing press had on the practice of handwriting scripture, the kind that was resuscitated for this project.
At the very end of Illuminating the Word, a comment wall invites people to leave some of their own handwriting behind, on pinned-up 3x5s. Some of the notes are religious (“Beautiful. Thank the Lord.”); some aren’t (“Amazing. Stunning. Beautiful!”). Some visitors opted for exposition (“The exhibit is remarkably artsy and enlightened my day and life. I’m truly grateful that I got to take the time to see it with my own two eyes.”); others went for poetry (“I hear the quietness of the work.”).
They’d seen it, and they were putting it into words.
Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible
at the Knights of Columbus Museum
1 State St, New Haven(map)
Written by Dan Mims. Image #1-3 provided courtesy of the Knights of Columbus Museum. Images #4-6 photographed by Dan Mims.