BLOOMINGTON — Illinois Wesleyan University will host a heritage edition of the first completely handwritten and illuminated bible commissioned in the western world in more than 500 years.

IWU Chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger said this bible is “something old that's been made new” and will be “of interest beyond just a spiritual perspective … for anyone interested in good art, creativity, spirituality and innovation.”

Several programs on Thursday will kick off IWU's “Year with the Saint John's Bible,” including an ecumenical service and blessing at 11 a.m. in Evelyn Chapel and a presentation by Tim Ternes of Saint John's University at 6:30 p.m. in Presser Hall's Westbrook Auditorium.

The seven-volume, 1,150-page Saint John's Bible was commissioned by Saint John's Abbey and University as a way to commemorate the millennium. Each page is 24½ inches high and nearly 16 inches wide. 

Work began in 2000 and the final volume was completed in 2011.

This bible combines the use of old-style tools from before the invention of the printing press with modern-day images in the illuminations in what organizers of the project describe as “a work of art and a work of theology.”

The New Revised Standard Version translation was used.

The Heritage edition of The Saint John's Bible is a full-size, fine art edition of the original, which is housed in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library on the campus of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn., near St. Cloud.

Two volumes - the Gospels and Acts - will be at IWU for six months. The Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the bible, will be at IWU for the second six months.

Only two other colleges are part of the Heritage Program this year: Yale University and the University of Notre Dame.

“The Heritage Program was an opportunity to do more than just a one-time program,” said Winger.

The university plans to have exhibitions at Ames LIbrary that include other illuminated works that are part of the school's collection. The library also has a collection of smaller versions of the volumes which will be on reserve for people to view.

A team of artists used calfskin vellum, quills hand-cut by the scribes, lampblack ink and various cakes and powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk and water.

Gold leaf was applied in a process that includes blowing through a bamboo tube to activate the glue-binding agent.

Six scribes did the calligraphy. Goose quills were used for the main text. Turkey and swan quills were used for heavier letter forms.

“We live in this image-saturated society,” said Winger. “The illuminations really invite you to stay awhile with them.”

Madeleine Callahan, a community liaison for the project, said, “Looking at artwork like this, it takes your breath away.”

Callahan is a coordinator of the Benedictine Oblate of Bloomington-Normal. Oblates are lay people associated with the Benedictine community.

The oblates are among those who will be trained as docents to bring the heritage edition of The Saint John's Bible to churches, bible study and prayer groups, schools and elsewhere to “give programs or just let them look at it,” said Callahan.

The artwork is referred to as “illuminations” rather than illustrations because they involves gold, platinum or silver

“When it's illuminated, you kind of see yourself in the gold. You're a part of it,” she said.

Callahan and her husband's family have been a part of the project since the beginning. The family contributed money toward the production of Psalm 150.

One of the four framed texts at IWU includes Psalm 150. It hangs outside the chaplain's office in Evelyn Chapel. The other three are on display at Ames Library.

Winger said the illuminations in The Saint John's Bible provide 21st century insights that celebrate racial and ethnic diversity and the role of women.

An example is the illumination of the Valley of the Dry Bones, a vision described in the Book of Ezekial, in which the artist included images of the Holocaust, World Trade Center attack and Rwandan genocide. An illumination in the Book of Genesis, depicting creation, incorporates satellite images.

“Recognizing the multifaith world in which we live … there are Arabic and Hebrew words in some of the illuminations,” she said.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota



Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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