Friday, September 14, 2012

7 Questions (Part 2): Jason Engel from Saint John's Bible

4) Could you talk a little bit about the new Heritage editions?
The Abbey and University want to share the Saint John's Bible with the world as much as possible, but for several years the only way to do that was by taking completed original pages around to various public events.  We want the world to see it, but we don't want the whole world coming to central Minnesota.  One early idea was to have the scribes and artists create twelve identical copies of the Saint John's Bible and place them around the world, but the cost made that utterly impractical.  Starting in 2004, Liturgical Press was engaged to produce the half-sized "coffee table" version that almost anyone can buy at bookstores or online, but the technology to create a full-size, fine-art, accurate and illuminated reproduction - or, as Donald Jackson prefers to call it, a "faithful interpretation" - simply did not exist.

That finally changed in 2007.  Mr. Jackson devoted three years to identifying the best materials and processes to reproduce the Saint John's Bible as accurately as possible.  Digital imaging of each page was performed on-site at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  The original is written on vellum; Donald found that Monadnock Paper Mills, in New Hampshire, was able to provide a custom-made 100% cotton archival paper with a life expectancy of many hundreds of years that looks and acts similar to vellum.  The John Roberts Company in Minnesota invested in a rare Heidelberg XL105 printing press that uses ultraviolet light to instantly dry the layers of fade-resistant ink that are applied in multiple passes.  That is a critical requirement, because wet ink applied to cotton tends to bleed broadly and rapidly along the fibers.  Printed pages are then delivered to McIntosh Embossing, also in Minnesota, where all of the silver and gold is applied to every illuminated element that appears in the original.  This may require a half-dozen passes or more for each page to recreate the proper appearance and feel of illuminated elements, and may take days.  Each page is then inspected and touched up by hand by members of the original team to ensure the best possible reproduction.  The completed pages are sent to Roswell Bookbinding in Arizona where they are sewn by hand into handcrafted Italian leather covers with wood cores.  Each volume has a unique design including embossed highlights using 24K gold.  Only 299 sets of the Heritage Edition will be produced.  The first five volumes are done, Gospels & Acts and Letters & Revelation are in the works.

One of my favorite reproduction tricks for the Heritage Edition is the illusion of translucency.  The original vellum is thin enough that you can faintly see what is on the other side of the page you are reading.  Indeed, some illuminations intentionally rely on this feature.  The cotton pages, however, are quite opaque.  In order to recreate the appearance of the original, every page not only has it's own content clearly printed on it, but also a very faint image of the opposite page.  The effect is so natural and convincing that no one notices it unless I point it out, and then they are quite delighted by the attention to detail in the reproduction.  This was not done for the "coffee table" edition.

The result is breathtaking.  I've had the honor of caring for a Heritage Edition volume of Historical Books in my home for a few weeks, and I am still awed by its appearance every day.  It is a huge book, more than two feet tall and three feet wide when open.  It weighs more than my pre-schooler.  The pages are heavy with a distinct texture.  Reading the large script is an intentional act, not because it is too small or too ornate, but because it's appearance intimately draws the reader into the text on the page.  I could write volumes about the illuminations alone, which are vibrant and often contain so many elements that a person could ponder them together with the related text for days.

Every time I witness someone first touch a page and try to turn from one to the next, they express a sense of reverence and great care, as if they can't believe they are allowed to touch it (we always encourage people to explore illuminations and read from their favorite passages - with clean hands, of course).  Discussions start and continue afterward as people share with each other what they saw.  Finally, I always ask people to find their favorite passage within the volume I am presenting; this is a dramatic, awe-inspiring representation of God's Word, but ultimately it is an individual's relationship with the Bible that is most important.  The act of locating and reading a favorite passage makes viewing the Saint John's Bible a personal experience.  In my humble opinion, the Heritage Edition of the Saint John's Bible undoubtedly accomplishes the goal of igniting the spiritual imagination of everyone who sees it.

5) Which of illuminations in the Saint John's Bible do you like the most, and why?
This one is probably the hardest question because I like so many of the illuminations for different reasons.  I'll mention eight of them, and try to keep each one brief because I would rather let other people find their own interpretations.

The first one I would like to mention is actually a theme that runs through all seven volumes.  God is perfect, humans aren't.  Occasionally, a scribe would accidentally miss a line of text.  If the error was caught immediately, the scribe could scrape away the mistake, re-finish that part of the vellum, and continue.  If the mistake was not caught until the page was complete, the solution was to draw a small marginalia like a bird holding a string that would point to the location of the mistake and lead the reader to the bottom of the page where the missing line would be inserted in a ribbon-like banner.  Look at Mark 3:20 for an example.

From Pentateuch, I like the illumination of Jacob's Ladder in Genesis 28.  The print edition does not do it justice, because it is hard to notice certain details that convey the scale of the event being depicted.  Can you find Jacob?  The first time that I saw this in the Heritage Edition and had my perspective properly reset I was stunned.  I also must mention the illuminations for Creation and for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

Hands down, my absolute favorite piece of art in Historical Books is a small flourish of color in the margin near 2 Kings 20-21.  Yes, there are bigger, grander images elsewhere (this volume ties Gospels & Acts for most illuminations), but this small flourish is, to me, the single most human element of the entire project.  Brother Dietrich Reinhart, a monk of the Abbey, president of the University, and a leading champion of the project, passed away while this page was being created.  The artist, Suzanne Moore, hid a small D and R in the flourish to honor him.

Wisdom Books has several illuminations that span both pages, marking it as perhaps the most frequently dramatic volume of the seven.  These books of the Bible are, for me, quite a relief from the violence found in much of the Historical Books.  My favorite, though, is a small quarter-page illumination at the beginning of Proverbs.  As I mentioned earlier, the original vellum pages are translucent.  The intro to Proverbs sits over the ending illumination in Job, and the two effectively create a single illumination.  In a typical Bible, Psalms appear between Job and Proverbs.  Psalms have their own volume, and so the artist of these two illuminations took the opportunity to subtly remind readers that the characters in Job likely knew all the Proverbs and yet they still did not know all of God's ways.

There are only a few illuminations in the Psalms volume and all of them are effectively subsets of the first illumination at the start of the book.  I have a personal affinity for Psalm 1, so I really enjoy that frontispiece.  This volume also pays respect to other faith traditions in a very subtle way.  Throughout Psalms you will see golden oscilloscope representations of singing.  Horizontal wave forms were captured from Benedictine monks chanting, while the vertical ones are from several non-Christian faiths.

The "Suffering Servant" illumination in Prophets, located near Isaiah 52 and 53, is not something that would jump out for most people as a favorite.  I struggle with it a lot.  It is grim.  The small scrawny person looks gaunt and lost.  The black gate around the figure is meant to look like a particular passageway that captured Africans went through as they boarded slave ships bound for the New World.  The hint of chain-link fences all around suggest separation and oppression.  This is suffering, both ancient and modern.  This illumination is powerful and horrible at the same time.

The volume for Gospels & Acts is packed with amazing artwork.  The whole book is a masterpiece, and yet some people claim it is the weakest of the seven volumes, in part because it was the first completed and thus many lessons were learned while making it but not implemented within it.  If pressed for just one illumination as a favorite, I would have to say the frontispiece to the Gospel of John.  It is the very first one I saw nearly a decade ago, and I have always been fascinated with it.  I always thought it was an intimidating image of Christ, almost scary as if it were stomping into the scene, looking down with an angry - almost alien - scowl.  It wasn't until a recent trip to the Abbey when I saw a full-size framed print that my perspective completely changed.  I see two distinctly different characters in the illuminated figure of Christ, and that has doubled my sense of wonder with this piece.

In contrast, Letters & Revelation was the last volume completed, and thus represents a dozen years of hard-earned skill and technique by people who were already masters in their arts at the start of the project.  If Gospels & Acts leaves you stunned, Letters & Revelation delivers the knock-out punch.  The illumination for 1 Corinthians 13 is my absolute favorite in the whole volume in part because it is the only one out of all seven volumes that reproduces the complete content of the related chapter within the illumination.  It also just happens to be my favorite chapter.

6) In general, if someone is thinking about purchasing some items from the Saint John's Bible catalogue, where would you recommend they start?
If you are in the central Minnesota area, or willing to make the trip, my first recommendation would be to visit the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library ( ) on the campus of Saint John's Abbey and University. Not only can you find books and prints for sale there, but you can walk through a public display of original pages from the Saint John's Bible.  The Heritage Edition is a joy to behold, but the original remains in a class all it's own, and I think it's worth the trip to see original pages.  HMML is home to the world's largest collection of images of manuscripts, a substantial number of original ancient manuscripts, and an enviable art collection.  The home of Liturgical Press ( ) is also there on campus, and they offer study guides and educational materials using illuminations from the SJB, as well as hundreds of other titles, mostly related to Catholicism.  No visit of Saint John's would be complete without also touring the iconic Abbey Church, the Great Hall, and a walk along Lake Sagatagan out to the Stella Maris Chapel.  Don't forget to pick up a couple loaves of the world-famous Saint John's Bread before you leave.  For everyone else, the Saint John's Bible website is at and offers views of all 1150 pages online, a history of how and why it was made, details about the Heritage Program, an online store where you can buy books and prints and gifts, news about current and upcoming public events, and a section about programming options including use in worship, book loans, exhibitions, and even an educator's toolkit with curriculum and resources.  The website also has contact information if you or an organization you represent is interested in purchasing a set of the Heritage Edition.

7) Finally, do you have a favorite passage or verse from the Bible?  Which translation do you prefer?
I've spent enough time studying English translations and their guiding philosophies, as well as debates, to know that discussing translation preference can be quite the minefield.  Frankly, I'm unhappy with the way translation arguments divide Christians from each other.  My favorite answer is the popular avoidance: "The best translation is the one that brings -you- closer to God."  As for me, if I'm not reading from the Saint John's Bible (which uses the Catholic Edition of the NRSV), I genuinely enjoy reading the NRSV with Apocrypha, and choose it first (either a pocket book that is almost always with me, or a chunky Oxford study Bible).  The academic in me loves comparing translations, because I have occasionally found radically different interpretations of the same text.  To that end, I almost always have an NRSV, RSV, KJV, NIV, and NET on hand and open to the same passages, along with a couple different online commentaries.  If I had the time to learn Koine Greek, I would be reading that.

I have three favorite passages.  The first is from 2 Samuel 14:14 "But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence."  I realize I'm taking the verse out of context, but as a standalone statement I know God did this for me.  I can see many steps he took over the last couple years to bring me back to him, and I am grateful for each one.

The second is from the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-13 "What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray."  Again, I know God came to me when I was lost and too afraid to take the step towards him first.  And let me tell ya, when God rejoices, he does it in a big way.  Wow.

The third is the entire thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.  It's the first complete (albeit brief) chapter I've committed to memory.  Yes, it's the popular wedding passage.  If you've paid attention to the whole letter, you know that chapter is really referring to interactions within a church community, but it's so broadly applicable to every kind of relationship between any number of people.  The Peace Studies major in me appreciates that.

1 comment:

CJA Mayo said...

When is it slated to be completed, and where can I get a full set? (I understand, from your post, they are identical to the actual, original St John's Bible in dimensions, and as many other ways as possible.)

How much is it likely to cost? $5,000? Price is not an object (i.e., I have good credit).

I've always dreamed of owning an actual Gutenberg (I could read it, too, as I can read Latin and mostly read blackface), and this would be one step closer.