A Modern Manuscript -- and an Ancient Church

Benedictine Bible Blends the Past and Present

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- As the 21st century marvels ever more at what man can achieve with machines, last week a delegation from Minnesota made everyone wonder at what man can do with his hands.

At the Wednesday audience of May 26, the St. John Bible Society presented John Paul II a full-size reproduction of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (24.5 inches by 16 inches, which makes for a 3-foot span when the book is open) from the first handwritten illustrated Bible to be produced in 500 years. This presentation marked the second stage of a project that has been under way since 1998.

St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, and St. John's University, founded in 1857 by the abbey, commissioned calligrapher Donald Jackson, former scribe to Queen Elizabeth II, to produce the St. John's Bible, a manuscript using the traditional quills, vellum, inks and metals that were used throughout the Middle Ages. It is slated for completion in 2007.

At the same time, the St. John's Bible presents a modern twist. Written in English, the Bible has a contemporary style, incorporates images from Eastern and Western Christian traditions and features flora and fauna indigenous to the region of Minnesota.

The 80-person delegation was headed by the abbot of St. John's, Father John Klassen; the president of St. John's University, Brother Dietrich Reinhart; and the calligrapher, Jackson. Earlier in the day, they met with Cardinal Pio Laghi who assisted in arrangements to present the Gospel to the Holy Father.

After the audience, the group held a press conference at the Russian Ecumenical Center in Borgo Pio, a district close to the Vatican.

Father Klassen opened the presentation by summing up the past/present nature of the Bible project. "Quills and e-mails, faxes and ink, illumination and digital images make this a Bible for the 21st century," he said.

Reminding the assembly of the great Benedictine tradition of preserving and transmitting knowledge and culture, he stated the aim of the Bible was to "illuminate God's Word, revive an ancient monastic tradition and create a contemporary work of art."

They certainly found a great contemporary artist. Donald Jackson got up with a flourish and explained the expected as well as unforeseen complexities that arose from such an ambitious project.

One of the difficulties stemmed from handwriting the text in English without a prototype to gauge the number of words per line (this was solved through the use of computers, which allowed them to test the format before they started writing). Another problem was the calligraphic script, which needed to evoke the ancient tradition but also be legible for a modern audience. To surmount this hurdle, Jackson developed his own script for the project.

An unexpected obstacle arose trying to find the proper quill for the opus. Quill pens were chosen not merely to emulate the practice of the medieval monks, but because "quill pens most reflect emotion in writing," said Jackson, punctuating his remarks with eloquent hand gestures. "They are sensitive tools."

A team of theologians have assisted Jackson in this endeavor, selecting the biblical scenes to be illustrated and providing commentary and observations on the texts.

Jackson spoke humorously of the difficulties of assembling a team of calligraphers in his scriptorium in Wales and the stamina required to produce such a laborious work. Apparently, defections from the project have not been unusual. "One calligrapher left for lunch one day and never came back," leaving behind work, tools and paycheck, Jackson noted.

He also spoke of providence and human error and how in some pages a mistake can become an occasion for true artistic ingenuity. In the case of the page of the "Sower and the Seed" a line was left out of the text. Jackson added the line at the bottom of the page and then created a trail up the page to a little bird indicating the correct place.

Jackson claims to be able to tell whether his calligraphers are happy or sad simply by looking at their work. I asked Jackson whether the scribes in the Middle Ages were happy and how could one tell.

He described it as a "connection between the artist and the work" where the way the letters are formed and flow indicates whether the scribe is completely caught up in the work. This oneness with the task makes scribes "happy."

I wondered how many other insights into the faraway world of medieval manuscripts Jackson had gleaned during this process.

"Number one, that you can only sit on your rear for so long and keep concentration!" he said, laughing. "Scribes could work for five or five-and-a-half hours, max." Then he grew more serious and added, "One good quill is worth diamonds. One that won't go blunt and will lie well in the hand -- it's the relationship with the tool and the ink that's important."

The letters are "the heartbeat" of the text. "There is poetry in script," he added. While writing the Psalms, Jackson changed the writing to bring out the musical aspect of the work. Through images, script, nature and music Jackson seems to have employed all of creation to make this Bible "accessible, interesting, open and respectful to all."

While Jackson is not Catholic, he was deeply moved by his audience with the Pope. Jackson didn't say anything; he let "the book speak for itself" as he held it open before the Holy Father.

When John Paul II's face lit up upon seeing the first page of the Gospel of St. John, the artist had seen all he needed to see. It seemed to Jackson that the Pope, "so weary and frail," was summoning his energy to "give everything he had to the moment in the moment." From artist to artist, each recognized the full giving of self to the task at hand.

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A Baroque Jewel

Later in the week, I was walking through the Roman Forum and as I have done for the past several years, I cast my eyes longingly past the Senate house to the beautiful Baroque church of Sts. Martina and Luca. I say "longingly" because in the seven years I have lived and worked in Rome, I have never seen the church open.

But on this occasion, to my utter astonishment, the doors were open. There have been false alarms of this sort before, as the church has been undergoing restoration for a remarkably long time. But this was no illusion. At long last the church was open.

Many art historians consider Sts. Martina and Luca to be the first Baroque church, and it occupies pride of place in the history of Roman architecture.

The Baroque painter and architect Pietro da Cortona began the work in 1634. Cortona, a Tuscan, was discovered by the Sacchetti family in the 1620s and brought to the attention of the family of the reigning pope, Urban VIII Barberini. Having already brought Bernini and Borromini under their wing, the Barberinis were delighted to have another up-and-coming artist at their disposal.

A lifelong devotee of St. Martina who was martyred under Alexander Severus in A.D. 228, Pietro da Cortona asked Pope Urban for permission to rebuild the crypt under the church at his own expense. Intending to place his own tomb in the space, the artist was amazed to discover the relics of St. Martina on Oct. 25, 1634.

The Pope took great interest in this find and sponsored the rebuilding of the whole church, entrusting it to Cortona as of 1635. The church was completed during Jubilee Year 1650.

It is not only the dramatic story of the saints' rediscovery that renders the church fascinating. For Pope Urban, this rebuilding allowed him to make a triumphant topographical statement.

Ancient custom dictates that the newly elected pope will solemnly process from St. Peter's to take possession of the other three patriarchal basilicas: St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The "Via Papalis" had marked the route of the procession since medieval times.

In the late 1500s the route had been adapted to allow the Pope to travel along the Via Sacra, the ancient road of the Roman Triumphal parades, which celebrated the military victories of pagan Rome. This road climbed the Capitoline Hill and passed through the heart of the Forum.

Pietro da Cortona's discovery allowed Pope Urban to build the first church on the extended route, creating a topographical symbolism along the procession route.

Placed next door to the Mammertime prison, traditionally believed to be the site where Sts. Peter and Paul were held prisoner before their executions, this church enhanced the imagery of triumph of the Christian martyrs. Built during the Thirty Years' War, when many more Catholic martyrs were made, the new building also provided a rallying point in a dangerous world.

Those accustomed to the flashy, gilded and ornate style of the Baroque will be surprised by the simple white interior of the church. Roman Baroque took on two dimensions, the active, theatrical designs with floating statues and colored marble that characterized the work of Bernini, and the contemplative, monochrome undulating walls of Borromini.

While Cortona expressed the former dimension in his painting, his architecture emphasized the latter. Inside the church, the whitewashed walls are rhythmically articulated by columns and pilasters. High, rigorous arches lift the walls to the height of the drum and mimic the Roman triumphal arches visible right outside the front door. The spandrels barely contain the stucco symbols of the Evangelists, which create a change in mood toward the dome.

In architecture, the dome represents heaven while the nave of the church symbolizes the journey of the faithful through their earthly existence. The restoration of the church allows the viewer to experience the full effect of the two in Cortona's masterpiece.

The severe forms of the lower part of the church give way to a suffusion of light from the windows Cortona placed in the base of the dome. From there, the dome opens into an intricate tapestry of four pointed rosettes, and floral crosses held together by garland-laden bands that lead the eye up to the lantern for a final explosion of light.

The parish priest of St. Mark's Basilica in nearby Piazza Venezia will be taking over the pastoral administration of the newly reopened church. As he proudly welcomed visitors to his church, arranging flowers on the altar and overseeing the arrangement of a parish bulletin by the entrance, I asked him whether the church was going to rejoin the city as an active parish.

"Of course," he said, beaming. "Here we are by the Forum, seen by everyone. What could be better than to invite everyone in?"

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome Campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.