By Robert Dilday
The first Bible to be written and illuminated entirely by hand since the invention of movable type more than 500 years ago will be on display next month at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond — the first time the unusual work of art has been exhibited in Virginia.
The seven-volume St. John’s Bible is the work of six calligraphers and six artists initiated by St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in the late 1990s. Replicating the process used by monks in the Middle Ages to create illuminated Bibles, the calligraphers handwrote the 1,150 pages on sheets of vellum, using quills of large flight feathers from geese, turkeys and swans. A rare 19th-century Chinese black ink was used for the calligraphy. The artists mixed pigments such as vermillion and lapis lazuli with water and egg yolks, and applied gold leaf, silver and platinum to create 160 vibrant illuminations.
Though the process was medieval, the illustrations are both contemporary and multicultural, drawn from both ancient and modern traditions. They include features such as a DNA double helix, New York’s Twin Towers, images from the Hubble telescope and patterns from South Asian textiles.
“The work is breathtaking,” said Tracy Hartman, professor of homiletics and practical theology at BTSR, who is coordinating the seminary’s Bible project.
All seven volumes will be available for public viewing on Thursdays through Sundays in October, with several lectures and events scheduled, including an opening gala on Oct. 2. The volume containing the Gospels and Acts will remain at the seminary through next July.
The volumes are among the St. John’s Bible’s 299 Heritage Editions, signed and numbered and containing the same art as the original.
The Oct. 2 exhibit opening will feature a lecture by Tim Ternes, director of the St. John’s Bible Project. Other lectures by BTSR professors are scheduled for Oct. 9, 16 and 23.
On Oct. 20, Anton Koekemoer, a research astrophysicist with the Hubble Space Telescope, will speak on “Science and Faith in Harmony” at the IMAX Dome Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. Images from the St. John’s Bible will be displayed on the IMAX screen during Koekemoer’s lecture.
Though there is no cost to view the exhibit — which includes an introductory film and an opportunity to turn the pages of the volumes — Harman said the seminary is asking groups to register at btsr.edu/stjohnsbible or by calling 804.204.1205.
During the year in which BTSR has the Gospels and Acts volume, seminary professors will be available to lead worship, lectures or retreats with the manuscript for churches or other groups.
Hartman said the seminary was motivated to undertake the exhibit because it “draws attention to the word of God and ignites spiritual imagination among students, alumni and churches.”
It also offers opportunities to build bridges with other faith communities, enhancing BTSR’s commitment to justice and peace-building, she added.