Illuminating the Word
The St. John’s Bible at the Museum of Biblical Art
THE MUSEUM OF BIBLICAL ART’S “GILDED LEGACIES: THE ST. JOHN’S GOSPEL IN CONTEXT” is misnamed. The actual context of this modern manuscript project, funded by St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, is a thing apart from the historic psalters and scriptures tucked in the wings as supplementary display. The lavish pieties that attend its promotion obscure a bleaker setting.
St. John’s is a community of men doubly ordained as priests and as patrons of art. The largest Benedictine monastery in the Western world, it is a magnificent compound of natural beauty and Marcel Breuer architecture. The media-wise Abbey was the birthplace of Minnesota Public Radio. It also featured prominently in the Catholic Church’s recent sex abuse scandal.
In 2002, under pressure of publicity and threatened law suits, the Abbey finally acknowledged “creditable accusations” of abuse—enacted over decades—against 13 monks. Anxious to keep cases out of court, it negotiated a settlement with the victims’ lawyer which avoided the criminal justice system. Patrons of the first handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press now function under the eye of a lay watchdog panel.
That is nothing against the manuscript. Yet the interior confusions of its sponsor finds subtle embodiment in a made-for-exhibition Bible that is less a companion to liturgical prayer than an ambitious tour de force with a parade schedule, a catalog, its own website and wares: DVDs, facsimile editions, notecards, framed prints.
The sacral imagination and the pictorial one are not fully in sync in St. John’s project. Sacred art cedes to decoration when the language of religious symbols is faultily transmitted or distrusted. Illustrations here have all the coherence of a 1970s folk Mass compared to the consistent clarity and dignity of the letter arts.
The St. John’s Bible was the brainchild of Donald Jackson, an eminent calligrapher and official scribe to Queen Elizabeth II. With the Abbey’s backing, he assembled a team of artists, calligraphers, and computer-savvy designers; St. John’s formed a committee to govern matters of theology and textual translation. (The Abbey chose the New Revised Standard Version, a gender-neutral translation popular with mainline Protestants. Disfavored by Rome, it is already headed for obsolescence among Catholics.) Their goal was to produce a contemporary rival to ancient scriptural texts, such as the Lindesfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells.
Contemporary calligraphy stems from the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. William Morris’s attraction to calligraphy is well known; its broader resurgence began with Edward Johnston, who formed a vibrant “English” school of modern lettering. Mr. Jackson is a foremost inheritor of the school’s achievements, basing much of his own creative technique on the same Winchester Bible studied by Johnston. He translated the weight and texture of the Winchester text, midway between Carolingian minuscule and a Gothic, into a style suitable for modern English.
His immaculate pen work testifies to the timeless seduction of fine lettering and to calligraphy as an expressive medium. His team produced a resplendent text, magisterial in its lettering and gilding, in the architecture of its pages and delicacy of marginal ornament. Intimately bound to the lettering, marginalia decorates the page with no obligation to elucidate the text. Chris Tomlin’s plants, insects and butterflies provide a traditional natural history contrapunto amid schematic stampings or abstract designs. Thomas Ingmire’s illuminated graphics are works of true interpretive power.
These non-narrative elements carry carry more conviction than illustrations, particularly of the Christ story. The renascent iconoclasm of modern abstraction haunts the project; diagrammatic designs and color interactions are simpler than that knotty business of the Word Incarnate.
“The Genealogy of Christ,” an exquisite Menorah threaded with Hebrew calligraphy, affirms Christianity’s organic dependence on Judaism. But additional Zen, Navajo, Buddhist and Islamic elements hint at a multi-cultural variant of Pascal’s wager and lack of confidence in the claims of Christian motifs. As Mr. Jackson admits, he wanted to suggest “the connectedness of all seekers of enlightenment. All paths lead to God.” Jihadists and wiccans know better.
Mr. Jackson’s penscript leans toward the antiquarian. That tilt is more compatible with iconographer Aiden Hart’s canonical formality and linear purity than stylistic swings between didactic realism, primitivism and abstraction. Ethnographic precision (a starving Biafran; Adam and Eve as tattooed natives) competes with loose figuration elsewhere, borrowings from cave art and abstract passages. Fussily accurate car wrecks litter an impressionistic Cambodia-like killing field; scrap metal and corpses fuse into an undifferentiated Isaian agony—moral
equivalents. Gilded blurs flit across a hackneyed Nativity like spooks on a Halloween card. Angels, probably.
Mr. Hart’s effort to reconcile the modern with the hieratic keeps faith with Graham Sutherland’s “Christ the King” for Coventry Cathedral. But his mediating iconic solemnity (“that Greek Orthodox stuff”) did not please St. John’s oversight committee. Consequently, the Bible lacks the unbroken integration of word and image that is the glory of Eric Gill’s “The Four Gospels,” one of the most beautiful books printed in the 20th century. Perhaps converts grasp the living potential of tradition better than Lake Wobegone’s Benedictines.
The crucifix, Christianity’s most potent symbol, measures the project’s religious temper. The St. John’s Crucifixion, featured in the catalog, is an inchoate twist of gold filaments that vaguely recalls Germaine Richter’s controversial crucifix for the Church of Assy. But Richter’s abstracted corpus was a writhing scream of pain that spoke to the dying in a French hospice after World War II. St. John’s is a cross to be taken up with a spoon, a pudding of gold leaf for a post-Christian culture uneasy with any cross at all. (If all paths lead to God, get rid of that cross, honey. It’s just weighing you down.)
“In the beginning was the Word.” That single Johannine phrase is the crux of Judeo-Christian understanding of reality. Fidelity to the Word has nothing to do with the look of words on vellum, however lovely. As if to remind us, news broke August 18th of three additional miscreant priests (one now deceased) whose names were kept secret by the Abbey for months, possibly years.
The Spirit moves in mysterious ways to chastise those who would make an idol of a manuscript.
“Gilded Legacies: The Saint John’s Bible in Context” at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61st Street).
This essay first appeared in The New York Sun, September 7, 2006.
Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey