Monday, November 22, 2010

LHP Review: An Illuminated Bible Volume

Jackson, Donald, Artistic Director and Illuminator. The St. John’s Bible: Historical Books. Collegeville, Minnesota: St. John’s College/Liturgical Press, 2010. 276 pages. Cloth. $79.95. (LHP) 

The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.  

The St. John's Bible is a project hoping to create enduring interest in God's Word through the beauty of illumination and calligraphy, in addition to the power and promises of God's Word itself.

The latest volume (number six of seven) released is Historical Books (number two in canonical order). This volume includes Joshua through Esther, including the apocryphal additions to Esther and the apocryphal books Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. As mentioned in previous reviews, the text is NRSV.

Gold is featured prominently in every volume, showing the Lord's work of salvation and building his Church. The subtle architecture of the page facing the first chapter of Joshua gave me that initial impression. The cover art is the lower detail of a mountain view of the promised land and the challenges to come (page facing Joshua 3). Margins throughout Joshua feature snippets of text from chapter 24. Flipping through Joshua, one will see the quotes building up to the book of Judges, where similar blue text calls attention to a recurring theme: "Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord..." This culminates in the page-sized depiction of disorder (facing Judges 21).

Stars of David begin appearing...

With the coming of the book of Ruth, art has a softer side thanks to Suzanne Moore.

Bereft of her husband and two sons in a foreign country, the Jewish Naomi, mother-in-law to Ruth, decides to return to Bethlehem during a time of famine. Ruth, a Moabite, remains loyal to Naomi despite their different ethnicities, and these verses express the depth of love and fidelity Ruth has for Naomi. This loyalty is rewarded in history when the Moabite Ruth becomes the grandmother of the Jewish King David.
A feeling of mutual love and support is suggested by the inward leaning posture of the two women as they look into the distance.

Thomas Ingmire illuminates Hanna's Prayer:

This special treatment reflects the contrasting parts of the text: Hannah’s prayer and then her praise for a prayer answered. Hannah’s prayer is private, personal, and silent, and the left side of this treatment reflects this. The frail monocline capitals massed together with little background contrast are quiet and expressive of the mood of the words and the idea of the prayer. The right side is an image of praise and thanksgiving, and the vivid colors and gold celebrate her victory and joy. Stamped fragments of “sacred geometry” radiate around the words, glorifying God’s love.
Note: All indented lines in this review are reproduced from the publisher's websites.

One will notice special illuminations for
  • Gold letters of the Lord calling Samuel (Samuel 4's page)
  • Typos (missing lines are handled creatively, same page as above and also 2 Chronicles 10-11)
  • Judgment against King Saul (1 Samuel 31)
  • The Promise to King David (page facing 2 Samuel 7)
  • The entrance of the Ark of the Covenant (page of 2 Samuel 16 and facing page)
  • The dedication of the Temple (pages following 1 Kings 8)
  • Elijah and the chariot of fire (page facing 2 Kings 1-2)
  • Josiah (2 Kings 22)
  • The return of the people (page with Nehemiah 8)
  • and more texts...

Historical Books is the sixth of seven full color reproduction books from The Saint John's Bible.

Of all the different genres comprising the Bible, perhaps no other collection has caused as much discomfort within the reader as the historical books. The wars and bloodshed their stories contain have inspired pious and holy people to the greatest extremes of behavior, all in the name of following God's will. While Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Judith, and Esther contain many off-putting stories, they also have their share of inspirational passages; moreover, works such as Ruth and Tobit are both edifying and endearing.
The historical books follow a trajectory that goes beyond the books themselves. A close reading of the text reveals that the winners, or God's people, are not necessarily painted in glowing terms, and the neighboring peoples are not always presented as evil. Here lies the key to the interpretation of the historical books.

While many themes are evident throughout the historical books, it is quite possible that the most important is the understanding that God's history of dealing with people is not neat and tidy. Humankind, left to its own devices, can spiral downward into moral abyss, even as we proclaim fidelity to the Lord. Because God's love is unwavering, we as people created by God have been spared the worst we could possibly do to ourselves and others.

As the largest book in the series, Historical Books features more than twenty-five stunning illuminations as well as multiple text treatments and marginal details that dramatically depict the Bible's inspiring and thought-provoking passages. Through beautiful handwritten script and elegant design, this volume illustrates how the grace of God's justice and peace can rise from the most unlikely of places, reminding us that our redemption is always close at hand.

 I will grant both the beauty and the uncomfortable asbstraction of much of the art included in The Saint John's Bible. I personally love The SJB because of the handcrafted feel of the final product, even in reproduction. Yes, technology was involved, but real, skilled, gifted people were involved in an intensely personal, spiritual, and hands-on way. Earthly, yet spiritual, earthy and sublime, The Saint John's Bible deserves the attention of English-language Christians.

Donald Jackson is one of the world's leading calligraphers and the artistic director and illuminator of The Saint John's Bible. He is a Senior Illuminator to the Queen of England's Crown Office and is an elected Fellow and past Chairman of the prestigious Society of Scribes and Illuminators. His 30-year retrospective exhibition, Painting with Words, premiered at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in August, 1988 and traveled to 13 museums and galleries.

The launch of a national museum tour of the The Saint John's Bible began at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota in April 2005 where record crowds greeted the inaugural exhibit during its three-month run. The Saint John's Bible will continue its national exhibition tour that includes museums and galleries from throughout the United States and Europe.

If you have opportunity, turn out to see the exhibition. They won't let you touch the actual pages, but I hear you will be able to handle examples of the material used in the production of this special Bible.

Certainly, I would have preferred that an essentially literal translation had been used, one with a translation philosophy more in line with the KJV, but Donald Jackson and his team and sponsors have produced a work of enduring beauty, inspiration, and hope.

The St. John's Bible is a seven-volume set. We at QBR have been privileged to review the five previously released volumes. Letters and Revelation is slated for release in winter 2011. If you have been previously interested in the whole set, the publisher has a special deal on an order of the six available volumes if you preorder the final volume now.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.