Copying the Bible like a medieval monk

Twenty-seven seconds," says Donald Jackson as he picks up a penknife and cuts into the hollow shaft of a white, brown-flecked turkey feather. "Watch."

The first cut makes a rounded, U-shaped cross-section of the tip of the feather. Two more round cuts on either side bring it to a point, into which he makes a little slit. After he trims it a bit more, touching the tip with his tongue, he holds it up - a calligrapher's pen.

Just over 25 seconds. "Y2K proof," he says with a grin.

Mr. Jackson is one of the world's foremost calligraphers. As scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords in London - a position many refer to as the queen's scribe - he produces the official documents for the crown. He also produced the Royal Consent for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Now, Jackson is embarking on a six-year project to handwrite and illustrate the Bible, a project commissioned by St. John's University, a Benedictine school in Collegeville, Minn.

"The commission comes out of a 1,500-year commitment to the book," says Eric Hollas, director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at St. John's. "A respect for the book, a love for the book, and a love for the Bible are at the core of the Benedictine tradition." The project was commissioned in part to commemorate and revive the ancient monastic tradition of book writing, but also to produce a contemporary work of art that illuminates scripture for the new millennium. "Donald has been one of the key figures in the revival of the interest in calligraphy in the United States. He always wanted to do a Bible. It was a passion of his. That's the key reason we chose him," Mr. Hollas says.

Jackson demonstrates the tools of his trade with panache. In front of him is a weathered leather satchel with other penknives tucked in with goose, swan, and turkey feathers. "[The quill] makes lovely, spontaneous marks," he explains.

He does not have any ink with him, but, overcome by his own enthusiasm, he dips the quill in his coffee and gracefully begins to write on a file of papers next to him. Since he was a child, he says, he loved the physical feeling of dipping a pen in ink and moving it around on a surface. "Anything I say about my art is rooted in that physical, sensuous, touch sensation."

A white quill in his hand, Jackson explains some of the reasons he always hoped to produce a Bible. "With the writing of these words, every single letter is a little tiny unit of energy," he says. "It isn't a laboriously, painfully produced thing. It can be a joyously energized, spirited piece of writing, which, if you add letter on letter to word on word to page on page, becomes a whole book of energy pulsing." He brandishes the plume with excitement. "That is one of the key reasons the Word of God can come alive when it's written on a page. In a way, that demands far more of you than if you pick up a Bible out of your motel bedroom drawer."

Letters and words are not the only aspects of Jackson's art, and he will also be illustrating and interpreting the Bible with images - following the ancient Benedictine tradition.

The first illustrated page of the project was unveiled March 24. Depicting the opening genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, a menorah, in layers of red and blue, symbolizes a family tree from Abraham at the root to Jesus at the top. There is a swirling energy to the illustration, much like the ornate designs of a Celtic cross. Scraps of gold appear scattered on the surface of the image, giving it the texture of a brush-cleaned archaeological discovery. And in a subtle connection to the modern world, in the background, shrouded in a translucent haze, are the faint strands of the double helix, like an ancient DNA that binds the family tree together.

In the past, Benedictine monasteries were literate societies in an illiterate age, says Hollas, who also teaches theology at St. John's. In the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks and nuns copied manuscripts for their own collections, and in doing so, helped to preserve ancient learning. "Benedictine monasteries had always created handwritten Bibles," he says. "They just haven't done it for the past 500 years."

Future illustrations of the project - scheduled to be completed in 2004 - will incorporate images of technology, such as space travel, with traditional biblical images. Jackson also hopes to incorporate the values of other cultures and religions into his illustrations. "But this is a Christian Bible; this is not a New Age Bible. It's not 'something for everybody,' " he says. "It can say, 'We recognize you, and you are a part of this,' and not pull the substance of the Bible out of shape. It will say we're all part of the same family. And the way you do this is with the arts." The words of the handwritten Bible will be taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

The St. John's Bible, as it will be officially known, will include seven volumes. The first volume, "The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles," will be unveiled at Christmas 2000. Using a unique font created by Jackson, the Bible will be written on calfskin vellum. The illustrations will be illuminated with gold, silver, copper, and platinum. When completed, the Bible will be shown in museums and libraries.

When asked what he hoped to accomplish with this project, Jackson pauses. Then he says, "If you've got a quill pen in your hand, and you see that little bit of open space in front of you - just as the pen touches the surface, you hope that a little spark comes in between that point and the surface. And that hasn't really got anything to do with me. My job is to put the pen there, to get in the right state, and then, hopefully, some little thing will happen that I can never know anything about."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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