Art review: ‘Saint John’s Bible’ highlights illuminated manuscript

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Original pages from the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years are on view through March 2 at the Canton Museum of Art.

Nearly 70 pages are included from its seven volumes, including 32 powerful illuminations, in this unique exhibit.

Highlights include illuminations for Creation, Adam and Eve, The Ten Commandments, Esther, Vision of Isaiah, Valley of the Dry Bones, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wisdom Woman, The Genealogy of Christ, Loaves and Fishes, The Opening to the Gospel of Job, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Vision of the New Jerusalem.

This exhibit is one of several shows to have been organized by Saint John’s University based on the creation of the handwritten and illuminated pages for the Saint John’s Bible, but it’s the first to include pages from all completed volumes of the Bible, from Creation to Revelation, and the first exhibition since the completion of the work.

Saint John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, and Saint John’s University, founded by the abbey in 1857, commissioned Donald Jackson in 1998 to carry out the creation of The Saint John’s Bible. Jackson led a team of artists who collaborated with a theological team from Saint John’s Abbey and University.

It is the first handwritten Bible that interprets and illustrates scripture from a contemporary perspective, reflecting a multicultural world and advances in science, technology and space travel. It also incorporates imagery from Eastern and Western religious traditions and the Native American cultures of the area.

The Saint John’s Bible was started in 1995 and completed on May 9, 2011. It is composed of seven volumes, but its pages are still unbound to allow for exhibition.

“The other exhibits had 20 to 30 pages,” said Max R. Barton II, the Canton Museum of Art’s director of Communication, “But this is the first to have all of the pages from all seven volumes.

“There are roughly 140 illuminations (illustrations), 1,127 pages in the whole Saint John’s Bible. This is the largest exhibition by far with 68 pages from all seven volumes. It was chosen by Saint John’s for us because these images are the best and most uniquely tell the story from front to back,” he said.

The Crucifixion page could not be sent because it has reached its limit on exposure to daylight and must be put under wraps from six months to a year before being shown again.

Indeed, light levels are somewhat of an issue in the exhibit. When visitors first enter the galleries, the low light may prevent them from seeing the details of the very first work, the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, which contains some interpretations that, to say the least, may take viewers aback.

The artist, Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, has depicted Adam and Eve as Ethiopians, which he said was because scientists now say the original Eve was African. He was inspired by photographs he had seen of the Karo tribe of the Omo River in Southwest Ethiopia.

Biblical and rabbinical scholars acknowledge that the book of Genesis, notably stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Flood, both have counterparts in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic poem dating from the 18th century BC. So any historically correct Adam and Eve depiction based on the latest scholarship should be Middle Eastern, not African, wouldn’t you say?

But if you do search for connections between Mesopotamia and Ethiopia, you discover that, according to the Sacred Texts Archive (, “Babylon had two elements in her population in the beginning. The northern Accadians and the southern Sumerians were both Cushites. The finds of recent explorations in the Mesopotamian valley reveal that these ancient inhabitants were black, with the cranial formation of Ethiopians.”

So, while Jackson has said that he chose to depict them as Ethiopian because of the current archeological and anthropological theories that humankind evolved from Africa, he is correct, although not for the reasons he puts forth.

Is it serendipity or sacred knowledge? Likely a bit of both.

The images in this exhibit are full of similar interpretations that take a moment or two both to absorb and get used to, and may send you to the library and/or the Internet for further “illumination.” They are quite stunning, and whole Sunday sermons could be built around each one — which may be happening already, as Barton noted at least one local Methodist minister has returned to study the images several times.

There are a few things that viewers should keep in mind.

Everything that’s shown in gold leaf indicates the presence of the divine, even in the most hellish of places.

For instance, the illumination that depicts the Valley of the Dry Bones, which is in Ezekiel 37:1-14 (“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”), is a chiaroscuro painting of burned and blackened bones and artifacts of civilization. God takes Ezekiel to stand in a valley of bones and tells him, “these bones are the whole house of Israel” (37:11). The vision is of a dead people, a wasteland filled with the bones of the victims of many invasions. The people are not just physically dead, the entire society is spiritually dead and “dry,” having turned from God. We even see the carcass of a car and steel scaffolding.

Jackson researched the British Museum for images to use, and ended up using photos of skulls from genocide and war in Armenia, Rwanda, Iraq and Bosnia. Broken glass suggests suicide bombers and terrorism. At the center is a pile of eyeglasses, a well-known image from the Holocaust.

But throughout this wasteland are small squares of gold, indicating the presence of the divine, even here. On the right side is an oil slick that’s reflecting a rainbow. The script that runs below speaks not of judgment, but promise: “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

And arising from these ashes are seven points of light, each one the central light in a menorah, an ongoing sign in The Saint John’s Bible starting with Genesis of the covenant between God and the people.

These points of light end at the top of the page in a tumult of rainbows, signs of the renewal of creation and the covenant described at the end of Ezekiel 37.

The last page shows the Vision of the New Jerusalem. From a distance we see only the gold leaf, which depicts what appears to be a maze.

This page shows us — according to the interpretations on the didactics and in a handy book, The Art of the Saint John’s Bible ($34.95) sold at the museum store — that Creation is ongoing and never-ending.

The Saint John’s Bible with original paintings on vellum will be bound eventually, and the project is making 300 fine art heritage editions or facsimiles.

Malone University, which helped sponsor this exhibit, will have one entire set, as will John Carroll University.

“At Malone the full set will be put on display in the library, with didactics,” Barton said. “People can come there and look at them and page through them. They need to be used. The more they are used, the longer they will last, rather than just sit.”

There’s a companion exhibit, Sacred Voices, in the upper gallery, curated by Michele Waalkes, a Malone University visual arts lecturer. It showcases contemporary work by artists from around the country inspired by Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith. More than 30 artists from Australia, Austria, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have works on view.

Classes and events in connection with this show include:

• 5:30-6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and 11 — Illuminating the Word: A Theological Discussion sponsored by Malone University at the museum. Free.

• 2-4 p.m. Jan. 26 — Bookmaking Techniques and Illuminations, at the museum, $30 ($24 members).

• 4-5 p.m. Feb. 4 — Painting St. Benedict: His Life, by Dr. Katherine T. Brown, director of museum studies and assistant professor of art history, at Walsh University, 2020 E. Maple St., North Canton. 330-490-7090 or

• 7-8:30 p.m. Feb. 11 — St. Benedict’s Spirituality: The Benedictine Rule, by Rev. Michael Brunovsky, academic dean of Benedictine High School, Cleveland, at Walsh University. 330-490-7090 or

• 2-4 p.m. Feb. 16 — Religious Calligraphy Workshop at the museum. $30 ($24 members).

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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