Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Guest Post: Creation, Science, and Wisdom in The Saint John’s Bible

A hearty thank you to this guest post from Jonathan.  As you know, I am a huge supporter of the Saint John's Bible, so this post was especially interesting for me to read.

Over the past two years, I have shown the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’sBible to over 500 people in my student job in Archives & Special Collections at Santa Clara University. Whether my audience is church groups, undergraduates, or (more recently) the Catholic Biblical Association, people are invariably amazed by the beauty of this work.

The more I show The Saint John’s Bible, the more I notice two features of this landmark manuscript. First, I notice the way it creates conversations between different parts of Scripture. It creates these conversations by repeating symbols in different illuminations. Second, I notice how these conversations between images and text reflect contemporary themes in Catholic biblical interpretation.

Take, for example, the theme of creation. Ever since John Paul II kicked off the creation care movement, environmental stewardship has become a part of Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis especially emphasizes the presence of God in creation in Laudato Si’, in which he writes: “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (84). How might we read Scripture in the light of this call to creation care?

One of the most famous illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible is the Creation frontispiece to Genesis. This illumination follows Genesis 1’s account of the seven days of creation. Each vertical column is one of the seven days.

God’s repeated refrain that His creation is good makes Genesis 1 a crucial text for contemporary Catholic creation care (e.g. in Laudato Si’ 65–67). Unlike Genesis 2, Genesis 1 situates the creation of humankind in the creation of the cosmos and all other living things. Although humans are special, we are a part of creation, and we are dependent on this planet Earth for our survival. Modern evolutionary theory similarly shows the continuity between humanity and all other living things.

Donald Jackson alludes to scientific research on humankind’s origins by including scientific imagery in this illumination. The chaos and formlessness, the tohu wabohu in Hebrew, are illuminated as disjointed fractal patterns. The fish in the sea are images of fossils. Most importantly, the creation of humankind is depicted using prehistoric cave art from Australia and Africa. This cave art reminds us of the scientific account of humanity’s origins as primates. Rather than any kind of “war” between science and religion, this illumination reflects the Catholic idea that scientific truth leads to God, and that the Book of Nature is just a crucial as the Book of Scripture (e.g. Laudato Si’ 6). The Saint John’s Bible brings the scientific account of creation into the theological account, not just as a theory that can be reconciled with Scripture but as another window into the glory of God’s creation.

When I show this illumination, one aspect that often puzzles viewers is the raven in the center. After all, would it not make more sense to include the dove from the flood? However, Noah did send a raven to find land before he sent the dove. Also, one legend about St. Benedict recalls him feeding ravens in the wilderness. (This Bible was sponsored by the Benedictines!) Other viewers have pointed out to me that the raven represents wisdom in many cultures, such as in indigenous American myths.

The raven appears in Wisdom quite literally in the frontispiece to Ecclesiastes in the Wisdom Books volume. Ecclesiastes chronicles the search of one man for order in the chaos of life. The raven at the center immediately connects this illumination to Creation. But rather than the order of the cosmos in Genesis 1, this image depicts a tension between order and chaos, just as the sage of Ecclesiastes seeks order in the chaos of life.

The most obvious chaos in this image is in the way the text relates to the art: the illumination is not neatly confined to a page, but is spread over two pages in an asymmetrical, borderless chaos. The word for “vanity” in Ecclesiastes’ famous line “all is vanity!” can also be translated as “breath” or “wind,” and here the wind has become a whirlwind reaching beyond the borders of the physical page. The butterfly wings, another motif in The Saint John’s Bible, are blown about seemingly unattached to any butterflies. And if we see the raven as an allusion to the flood, then perhaps we can see this illumination as reflecting the chaos of the flood, the heavy winds that Noah would have sheltered from in his ship.

Yet even here there are indications of order. We see small columns of rainbow patterns, another frequent motif in The Saint John’s Bible, a reference to God’s promise to Noah after the flood. In the upper right, Jackson included an astronomical diagram. This is reminiscent of the cycle of the moon in the Genesis 1 illumination, the structure of the cosmos as created by God.

Scholars who study the way the Bible depicts creation note that in the prophets, when humankind turns wicked, the earth groans under their sin. In this illumination of Ecclesiastes, the reverse happens: the torment and chaos faced by the sage are writ large in the cosmos. As Old Testament scholar Choon-Leong Seow writes of the sage: “the real world is full of inconsistencies and even flagrant contradictions that cannot be explained away. The world is not an orderly place, and meaning is not always discernable, despite the best human efforts” (Ecclesiastes, Anchor Bible Commentary, p. 41).

Although the sage does not always see the divine wisdom behind the chaos of life, he still upholds its value (7:11). The Saint John’s Bible responds to Ecclesiastes’ lament with an illumination depicting the House of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-9:6.

This illumination replicates the whirlwind background of the Ecclesiastes illumination. But beneath the whirlwind we see a place where the winds have calmed into flat horizontal lines: an order, a structure, rather than chaos. In the House of Wisdom, we see the plan God has placed in creation. The seven pillars of this house become here seven candles, with one burning brightly with the interconnected circles motif found throughout the Wisdom Books volume. In the text, Wisdom invites the reader to “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (9:5), depicted here in clearly Eucharistic terms. The House of Wisdom is the Temple with its lampstands, but also the Church with its Eucharist.

If Ecclesiastes struggles to see the order in creation, Proverbs 8:22-9:6 and Genesis 1 help us see that order. By repeating symbols such as the whirlwind, the raven, and the rainbow, The Saint John’s Bible brings together these different passages into a conversation on creation. This conversation asks: how do we relate scientific and theological accounts of creation? How do we see order in creation when all seems to have fallen into chaos? How does the beauty of God in nature call us to care for creation?

Too often, when we look at The Saint John’s Bible we look only at individual illuminations. I have only started to see these conversations between art and text, between texts, and between this Bible and contemporary Catholic biblical interpretation because I have worked with this Bible closely for two years. Now, Michael Patella’s Word and Image and Susan Sink’s The Art of The Saint John’s Bible are superb works. But neither of them systematically survey this Bible’s symbolism and how it creates conversations between different texts. In understanding this Bible and its unique message, we have a long way to go.

Author Biography:
Jonathan Homrighausen is a graduate student in Biblical Studies at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, and a Student Assistant in Archives & Special Collections at Santa Clara University. Previously, he spent two years in the Catholic Biblical School in the Diocese of Stockton. His article on The Saint John’s Bible and Donald Jackson’s earlier work appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The Scribe, the newsletter of the Heritage Edition. He is currently writing a book on The Saint John’s Bible, and blogs at


Cody Cotton said...

Ugh! How I wish to see the Saint John's Bible for myself! And now that I know that the images have symbolic relationships to each other? I would savor every moment I had to gaze upon it... You're so fortunate!

Jonathan H said...

Thank you, Cody! I have two suggestions. First, check the map of Heritage Editions to see if there is one near you:
Barring that, the trade edition is still beautiful, and is within the price range of a mere mortal.
I hope you get a chance to see it!

rolf said...

Jonathan, good advise, that is how I was able to see the Heritage Edition! I looked it up on the web and found that my local Catholic University had this edition, and anyone can call and reserve a time to see at the university library!

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

I am completely embarrassed to say that I've never seen this Bible in the flesh. I live in MN and it is produced by St. John's University (one of the first places my wife and I visited when I first went to MN). Even my local library system doesn't own one (and it is headquartered in the same county).

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

Thanks, Jonathan H. I now know where I can see this.

Fashion Bags said...

something new

Jason Engel said...

Those who read the official books describing the official intentions and interpretations of illuminations will no doubt quickly learn that the black bird in Genesis 1 is meant to be a raven, thus hinting at the connection to Saint Benedict and through that Saint John's as a Benedictine monastery.

Yet every illumination offers so many possible interpretations that end up being still being perfect if they were not originally intended. For example:

• Spend a day at Saint John's Abbey in the spring, summer, or fall and you will see dozens of black birds all over campus and in the surrounding woods and prairies. You can't go anywhere without seeing them in the air or trees or on the ground. Indeed, you can't even make it past the first page of The Saint John's Bible without encountering a black bird . . . .

• The Saint John's Bible is very large. Whether you are viewing unbound original pages or the Heritage Edition, you can easily have 2 or 3 or more people side by side reading and exploring it together. Jesus tells us that when two or more believers gather together that his with them. The Spirit of God is often visually depicted as a dove in flight with a bright light behind - the Spirit of God coming to us from the Light that is God. So, take all of that together: When two or more people gather to view the Saint John's Bible together (it is so often a communal event) Jesus is present, the Spirit of God is present, God is present. Imagine the Light of God illluminating this Bible from above and behind us as we view it, and the Spirit of God casting a fleeting shadow as it crosses the Light while in flight to us.

• I've heard other people give many other interpretations of the bird on the frontispiece of Genesis, and that is only one element! The illumination and facing text are so incredibly full of possibilities and reflections that it's a wonder a devoted reader of this Bible can ever manage to turn to page 2!

Jonathan H said...

Jason -- yes, there is a lot of creativity and play in looking at the SJB! It has definitely transformed my faith and given me a much better sense of the beauty of Scripture. As a graduate student in biblical studies, trust me, my courses do not always communicate beauty, lol!

The possibility that the raven is the shadow of the Holy Spirit dove had *never* occurred to me. That is really intriguing. If you don't mind, I think I will incorporate that the next time I show this illumination! :)

I have never been to Minnesota, let along SJU. I think I might need to make a pilgrimage soon...