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.
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 Jdhomie.com.