Veteran journalist Carl Hoffman believes he’s solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. In 1961 at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller – son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in America ¬– travelled to remote New Guinea in search of primitive art for his father’s new museum.
Ohio Museum Hosts Panels From Unique Bible
Listen to the Story
The St. John’s Bible took 155 monks, a scribe for the British House of Lords, 23 artists, 16 years and a lot of swan feathers, calf skin and gold leaf to complete. You won’t see all of it at the Canton Museum of Art, but now you can see 68 massive pages of the first hand-written, illuminated Bible commissioned anywhere in the world in the last 500 years.
“I am the keeper of the pages and the keeper of the story.”
That’s the short version of Tim Ternes’ job description.
But it’s a really big job. Literally.
Ternes, the director of the St. John’s Bible, is looking out over the main gallery at the Canton museum.
Huge packing crates filled this space just about a week ago, each filled with wood and glass display cases. And each of those cases was filled with 2-foot-by 3-foot works of art, telling a story from each book of the Old and New testaments.
Now the cases are each set on their braces, and the lighting set low enough to minimize any danger to the delicate vellum pages.
And Ternes’ job moves from overseeing the final touches of the exhibit to explaining that the St. John’s Bible is about a lot more than a book – even an extraordinary book.
“We could have made the standard small Bible like you see on any bookshelf. But those are personal. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that the Bible is communal. And this book is so big, it can’t even be lifted by itself.
This book invites you to come together with others to make meaning. And even if you’re not even a person of faith, you’re going to be fascinated by the body of this work. This project as a work of art is incredible.
The art part of the project was overseen by Donald Jackson, the House of Lords scribe who gathered the artists and calligraphers and worked with the Benedictine monks in Collegeville, Minnesota.
“They know theology. But they’re not artists. And so what we have here is the blending of an exceptional team of artists, and an exceptional theological team.
“St. John’s made sure that every page here was going to be theologically sound—not right, but sound. And Donald Jackson made sure everything was going to be artistically sound.”
The art captures seven bands of creation, the steel and gray of the dry bones, the face of wisdom, Menorahs, Tibetan prayer wheels, Islamic arabesques, gilded DNA, whirling sands and skies and kings and queens.
What it never tries to capture is the face of God.
“Who are we to say here’s what God looks like,” Ternes says. “So what we’ve done is, as in the Medieval tradition, you use gold and precious metals to give you that play of light. But it also allows us to do something else. We’ve polished the gold—or in this case with the Wisdom Woman—we’ve polished the platinum.
“And as you approach this and look at it, what do you see staring back at you in those circles? If you look carefully, you’ll see yourself.”
The art work carries the theme, but also draws on the individual style of the artists. The calligraphers are a different story.
They all used turkey, swan and goose feathers – designed by nature to work with the calf-skin pages and conform to the calligraphers’ hands.
“If you’re going for seven years of writing, you want the most comfortable tool possible as well.”
All the letters are capitalized and the differences between each calligrapher’s work is so minimal that a class of art teachers had to stare long and hard to pick them up.
“The swirls? Yes, you’re exactly right. The flourishes. It is almost impossible to lift your hand off the page like somebody else. And so you will notice the ends, the lifts of the letters are different.”
The calligraphers’ and artists’ tools – from vials with flecks of metal to sharpened quills—are part of the exhibit as well.
“Other cases show pigments, samples of pen trials,” Ternes says.
“You can see the quills, you can see the cutting tools. You can see even how they correct a mistake.
“Here’s a very special little knife. If you make a mistake, that’s your eraser. You go to your page and you scrape it off and then you take sandpaper and sand it off and you’ll never know it was there. However, sometimes you make a mistake that is too big to cover up. Let me show you the best way or most fun way to correct it.”
Ternes walks over to Mark’s story of the sower and the seed, where a calligrapher discovered she’d left out a line. Each calf skin is four pages and represents three months of work, so starting over was hardly an option.
Instead, they used a technique from the Middle Ages called a ‘sign of return.’
It puts the lost line at the bottom of the column, acknowledges the mistake and then creates a mini-artwork around it.
“If you read down the column you’ll find a tiny red triangle. That triangle points to a bird. The bird’s feet are holding a rope, and the rope travels down the side of the column and is wrapped around a box that carries the missing line showing you, ‘Oops, this line belongs right up here where the birds beak is pointing. Isn’t that fun?”
Among the 1,127 pages of the St. John’s Bible, nine such “oops” have occurred.
Not everything about the project relies on the old ways, however. Max Barton of the Canton Museum of Art notes that the St. John’s Bible is a global work of art.
“This is a work that was created between Minnesota and Wales, looking at pages on a computer and then people actually handwriting and hand-illustrating there,” Barton says. “So it’s a blend of ancient art and modern technology.”
Susie Thomas heads university relations for Malone University. The Christian school has had one of the fewer than 300 printed copies of the St. John’s Bible and she helped put together the exhibit. Her personal favorite is from Creation.
“I love the seven bars because it doesn’t just show a picture. It’s almost like a devotional.”
Barton picks a passage from John’s Gospel.
But Tim Ternes refuses to pick a favorite—saying it would be like picking a favorite child. Then he pauses and heads back to the page from the Acts of the Apostles, its deep blue image of the Earth as captured by Apollo 17 framing the page.
“It’s been 500 years since a monastery has commissioned a work like this. And trust me, we now know why. This has been a huge undertaking. But if you look at this Bible lasting 1,500 years, 2,000 years, I’m always struck by the thought: What will those words, ‘To the end of the earth’ mean then?”
Based on the blending of old techniques and new preservation, Ternes is convinced the St. John’s Bible will be around long enough for someone to look at that page, and ask that question.