The holy Bible as a work of art will be showcased for three months, starting Tuesday at the Phoenix Art Museum.
While the museum is simultaneously bringing together three notable exhibits covering 1,300 years of rare Bibles and biblical manuscripts, the real excitement centers on the Saint John’s Bible. A fraction of its pages will be displayed.
It’s the only authentically handwritten and “illuminated,” or illustrated, Bible created in the more than 500 years since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., commissioned the $5.5 million project in 1998. The painstaking process of re-creating a Bible using centuries-old methods will be finished in 2008.
Forty-nine two-page sets of the Saint John’s Bible will be on display in Phoenix through March 9. Those pages are some of the 1,150 pages that will comprise the new Bible that will make up seven bound volumes, each page 23 1/2 inches tall and 15 3/4 inches wide and embellished with gold leaf and scribed with quills using ancient inks from China.
The new Bible is being called “one of the most monumental projects undertaken in the 21st century.”
That exhibit will be part of the overall show, “Illuminating the Word,” which also includes selections from the private James Melikian Collection from Phoenix and “The Early History of the Bible” exhibit, described as a “world-class collection of sacred manuscripts” from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
“I look at this as really a watershed event in the history of the museum and our Valley,” said Thomas Loughman, curator of European art for the museum. “This is the largest exhibition devoted to the book arts in the region.” Besides the historic value of the various works, museumgoers can expect to see and appreciate the art of sacred manuscripts.
“The range of the show is quite remarkable,” Loughman said. “The earliest things in the show come from the 700s, which is really amazing.”
Those seeing the exhibits will be able to also view original artist sketches and preparatory drawings, plus quills, hand-ground pigments and calfskin vellum used by the teams in Wales that are producing the Saint John’s Bible.
He said the Walters and Melikian collections are “jewel-like,” sometimes with only single letters in gold and some with full-page illustrations.
Phoenix Art Museum staff were first approached four years ago by the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts about being part of the Saint John’s Bible exhibitions, Loughman said.
The Benedictine monks and the Bible’s artists are heralding the historical significance of the new Bible, he said. “They want to put a public face on what will end up being a very intimate object — a bound book and a series of volumes,” he said. When he went to Minnesota in 2004 for negotiations, he realized Arizona could have a “great project,” especially because it typically has had little “access to large rare-book libraries” or touring exhibits of manuscripts going back 1,000 years or more.
From the time in the 4th century when the “codex,” or bound book, came about in Rome, Loughman said, publishing remained static until the printing press came along. “It was the idea of a bound book that has a spine, that uses both sides of a piece of parchment, that is portable,” he said. “It took great expense and great skill to tan the leather, to lay out the pages and to transcribe everything without mistakes and then to decorate it.” That was some of the regimen for the team commissioned to do Saint John’s Bible.
“In the Middle Ages, the idea of having a big margin was a little bit of ostentation because you paid by the square inch for the vellum,” Loughman said. “Then to leave two-thirds or three quarters bare was a real statement about how much money you were willing to plunk down into the project.”
On the other hand, works commissioned by those tight with funds “have script so small that it wasn’t practical to read it, but it was beautiful,” he said. The Walters collection contains such items.
Donald Jackson, a calligraphic artist and the scribe to Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown Office at the House of Lords, is leading the team of artists and calligraphers in the project in Wales. They are producing it in the New Revised Standard Version translation.
The Saint John’s pages include such passages as Genesis’ seven days of creation, the Garden of Eden, Jacob’s ladder and the Ten Commandments; plus Jesus’ parable of the loaves and the fishes, the Sermon on the Mount, the birth of Christ, the death of Moses and the crucifixion of Christ. Loughman said the Bible will show how the Benedictines put their own identity and character into the work, Loughman said.
“They wanted this Bible to show off the poor, to show off the ideas of Benedictine hospitality, they want this book to reflect their place in Minnesota.”
Those seeing the exhibits will gaze on pieces of the New Testament written in Aramaic in the 11th century, a leaf from a Byzantine Book of Psalms from about 1300 and two French illuminated Bibles from about 1250.
Why were early Bible makers so lavish with art to accompany Scripture?
“It’s the idea of bringing a piece of God’s presence down here to something that can be understood by human beings,” Loughman said. “The whole idea of putting gold in books is a metaphor for the presence of God, for the light of God. That idea of bringing heaven here and offering something to heaven, I think, is very much alive in all works of art.”
If you go
What: “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” plus two accompanying exhibits of Bible and religious manuscripts
When: Tuesday to March 9, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays; closed Mondays and holidays
Cost: $10 adults; $8 senior citizens (65 or older) and full-time college students with ID; $4 for children ages 6-17; free for children under 6 and for museum members. Admission free 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and 6 p.m to 10 p.m. on “First Fridays” of each month. Target Free Family Day is Jan. 5.
Information: phxartilluminated.org or (602) 257-1222.