Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Exhibition offers fascinating view of special Bible project

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Exhibition offers fascinating view of special Bible project

The Saint John’s Bible has drawn wide attention.
The Saint John's Bible (Warren Gerds)
The Saint John's Bible (Warren Gerds)
The Saint John's Bible (Warren Gerds)
The Saint John's Bible (Warren Gerds)

PHOTO: Shan Bryan-Hanson, curator of art galleries and collections at St. Norbert College, poses in the gallery housing “The Saint John’s Bible Exhibition. Warren Gerds photo

DE PERE, WISC., (WFRV) – While in the gallery where “The Saint John’s Bible Exhibition” is about to go on public display, I wondered at the scope of the project and the intellect behind it. There’s a genius to what the project encompasses.

“I think the illuminated manuscripts, something like this, could never be done by a single person,” says Shan Bryan-Hanson, curator of art at St. Norbert College. “It’s just too large of an undertaking. It’s like trying to build a cathedral with one person. And that collaboration probably brought a lot of richness to the project.”

The exhibition

“The Saint John’s Bible Exhibition” may be seen Monday, Sept. 30,  to Oct. 26 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays in the Baer Gallery of the Bush Art Center at St. Norbert College. Admission is free.

Related events

- “God’s Communities and Their Artists,”* 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30, Fort Howard Theatre, F.K. Bemis International Center, St. Norbert College. Lecture by the Rev. Andrew Ciferni, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College.

- “From Inspiration to Illumination: An Introduction to The Saint John’s Bible,”* 7 p.m. Oct. 10, Walter Theatre, St. Norbert College. Lecture by Tim Ternes of Saint John’s University, director of The Saint John’s Bible. Gallery talk and public reception to follow, 8-9:30 p.m. in Baer Gallery of the Bush Art Center.

*-Both lectures include objects related to their topic, with a full-size reproduction of The Saint John’s Bible at the Ternes event. Admission is free.

The 25 pieces in the exhibition are reproductions, but it’s a quality second generation. The two foot by three-foot pages (when open) command close-up inspection. Much about the exhibition stirs thought.

“I think there are many audiences for this exhibition,” Bryan-Hanson says. “(It would appeal to) anyone interested in the Bible, certainly. Anyone interested in iconography and imagery and layering imagery. Anyone interested in painting or calligraphy. Anyone interested in the tradition of book making and illuminated manuscripts themselves.”

The Rev. Andrew Ciferni, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, offered his perspective in response to emailed questions.

“What holds the most significance for me with THIS Bible is how deeply it reflects the importance of the Word of God in our lives,” Ciferni said. “Our churches are filled with missalettes in which the Scriptures are printed on cheap paper that is trashed once out of date. Muslims punish people for mishandling the Koran. The Jews enshrine the scrolls of the Torah. Yes, we do reverence the Gospel Book used in the celebration of the Eucharist, and there are quite artistic and sumptuous editions of the printed Scriptures. Several years ago, the Italian Bishops Conference commissioned the re-publication of their Lectionaries and had those books illustrated by contemporary Italian artists. And here is a unique example of a work that, on the one hand, is exquisitely traditional and, on the other hand, moves the tradition forward by employing a team of superb artists who, in close collaboration with a team of monks, theologians and Scripture scholars at St. John’s Abbey, produced a book which in so many places is a homily in color and form.”

The Saint John’s Bible was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Started in 1998, the project involves 73 books of the Bible presented in seven volumes of approximately 1,150 pages handwritten with a font designed specifically for the project by Donald Jackson, scribe to Queen Elizabeth II of England. Among scenes are “The Garden of Eden,” “Restoration of Job’s Fortune,” “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “Ezekiel’s Vision of the New Temple” and “Pentecost.” More specifics are at www.saintjohnsbible.org.

Smithsonian magazine’s often-quoted assessment of the project is it is “one of the most extraordinary undertakings of our time.”

Bryan-Hanson notes, “The Bible is completely done by hand, and it’s a wonderful marriage of old technology and new technology. The illustrations are exquisite. They’re beautiful. The script is beautiful. It was created for this particular Bible…

“We live in a culture where everything’s instant and fast and immediate, and to hand scribe a page of text that takes eight to 10 to 12 hours to create I think is amazing and beautiful. Though it’s a traditional process, it’s a 21st century Bible. One of the images references the Holocaust and terrorism and things that we have dealt with in the 20th century, and now the 21st century. For me, it’s the slowness of the process that’s quite exquisite in our very fast-paced society. That and the commitment to a project that is going to take many years.”

When viewing the exhibition, I had to toss out notions of what the word “Bible” envisioned to me.

Bryan-Hanson says, “Immediately what jumped out at me was the complexity of the images. The images I’ve seen online are beautiful, but there are so many layers in these images (when seen first hand) and so many different types of imagery, both modern and ancient, which is really fascinating…

“The imagery references many cultures. There’s imagery inspired by Native American Anasazi art, imagery inspired by images seen in the Koran, imagery from all sorts of cultures. Also, art, science and music come together in this Bible. There’s satellite imagery, imagery of DNA helix on one page of the Bible. Sound waves are overlaying some of the imagery. So it’s just a wonderful mix of diverse imagery and complex imagery coming together.”

The Rev. Ciferni provided an added view: “On first viewing, what surprised me most was, that though this Bible definitely has the look and feel of a great medieval Bible, such as the Bible from the Norbertine Abbey of Floreffe – now in the British Museum – the illustrators were obviously hearing from the Collegeville team about what texts called for the most illustration yet were given a freedom that allowed them to range in style from a contemporary version of the traditional Byzantine icon for Pentecost – the Life in Community print on display at SNC – to the integration of a photo image of the face of a Palestinian woman – the Wisdom-Sophia print also at the College. This is a marvelous example of what Tradition – capital T – is supposed to be, rooted in history but not bound by it. What inspiring examples of authentic discernment!”

While there are no written rules for viewing the exhibition, the presentation carries a few obligations from overseers of the tour.

Bryan-Hanson says, “With the creation of an illuminated manuscript, an illumination is not really considered an illustration, it’s considered an act of meditation and reflection. So the viewing of an illumination can also be an act of meditation and reflection. And so I think there are guidelines they want to be followed in how the images are presented.”

Bryan-Hanson also teaches introduction to painting, and she gave her students a sneak peek of the exhibition as a valuable resource.

“We talked a lot about the elements of principles of design, the use of rhythm and repetition in this imagery,” she said. “We were looking for color. The color is very beautiful… We talked about how to represent an idea or concept through abstract imagery, how to represent multiple ideas through one image, how to layer images of different cultures, how to integrate images and typography… We talked about the brush stroke and how the paint is applied and how stamps are used in combination with brush work. We probably won’t be mixing or own pigment (like done in the project), but there’s a lot to talk about there.”

Many viewers will come from off campus. The Rev. Ceferni had thoughts concerning the wider community:

“What value for the public? An experience of beauty inspired by the author and source of all Beauty. A new vision that might draw one back to one’s Bible for personal reading and reflection. A coming to see how the quality of the text that is proclaimed can affect the impact of the Word on the mind. This Bible, these prints, are a celebration of how boundless is the creative spirit that is poured forth into the hearts and minds, eyes and hands of men and women who, it is clear, entered into a contemplative environment –  both individual and in team – so that the Word of God could be HEARD anew without being spoken. Just as it is meant to be HEARD without words in the lives of women and men whose lives are shaped by the Scriptures.

“This is a truly privileged experience for the people of this area. I’d be bringing in school children, CCD classes, RCIA catechumens and candidates. One does not need to be a believer of any stripe to be moved and inspired by these texts and images.”

While at “The Saint John’s Bible Exhibition,” a visit to the adjacent gallery will give a perspective on the past and tradition.

Byran-Hanson says, “We also have some illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages on exhibit in our permanent collection gallery right now, so there’s an opportunity for someone to look at an illuminated manuscript page from (the year) 1230 or from the 1400s and then see this modern-day version of an illuminated manuscript, which I think is pretty interesting.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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