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Saint Mark's Cathedral hosts exhibition of illuminated, hand-written Bible

Published: Thursday, Oct. 4 2012 1:51 p.m. MDT

The Saint John's Bible is the first handwritten, illuminated edition in more than 500 years. Each of the replica's six volumes lies open on its own table in the West Trancept of St. Mark's Cathedral, 231 E. 100 South in Salt Lake City. It took 15 years to create the reproductions.

Eric Betts, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — As admirers turn the pages, it may seem as if they're stepping back into the Middle Ages.

Smithsonian magazine has called it "one of the extraordinary undertakings of our time." The Saint John's Bible is the first handwritten, illuminated edition in more than 500 years. An illuminated manuscript is a document supplemented with decorated text and colorful illustrations, sometimes ornamented with actual gold or silver.

The seven volumes were commissioned by the Benedictine Abbey, Saint John's, in Minnesota.

Now the Heritage Edition, a special touring edition of that Bible, has come to Salt Lake City. The Rev. Ray Waldon, dean and rector of the Cathedral Church of Saint Mark, arranged for the exhibition. His friend, the Rev. Dr. Kirtley Yearwood of the abbey, offered it to him.

"He called me and said, 'Ray, how would you like to have a Saint John's Abbey Bible there?'" The Rev. Waldon's answer was an enthusiastic, "Yes!"

"St. Mark's has always been open to everybody, and what we're hoping to do is bring a depth in their lives that they can experience through the illuminated Bible. (For) those who have maybe never had an experience with the Bible, this will draw you in, it will give you an opportunity to think," the Rev. Waldon said.

Each of the six volumes of this replica lies open on its own table in the West Trancept of St. Mark's Cathedral, 231 E. 100 South in Salt Lake City.

This is the first church to host the full-sized reproductions of the original, which took 15 years to create. These volumes have 1,150 pages and 160 artworks.

Saint John's Bible is made of vellum pages created from calf skin. It has lettering made with Chinese black ink, which is candle smoke or soot. The quills come from turkey, goose or swan feathers.

The commissioned artist, Donald Jackson, is Queen Elizabeth's scribe. He said he reaches into his heart when he creates art, hoping to strike a chord that will mean something to others. Just as monks made drawings in their copies of the Bible that reflected the age they lived in, so, too, did Jackson and has team of 23 artists and calligraphers.

But with all of that hand lettering, there are some mistakes. Even the best calligraphers forget a line. Like the medieval monks, the Saint John's calligraphers placed some lines at the bottom of a page and then teamed with artists to draw attention to where they should be.

One page shows a drawing of a bumblebee tugging on a series of pulleys that Da Vinci designed. The reader's eye goes directly to where the missing text should be. Another drawing places a lemur attached to a vine, the bottom is attached to the line of text, the top of that vine reveals its true place.

"Out of 1,100 pages, we have only nine major corrections … and each one does something a little bit funny, or a little bit humorous, saying ‘We're human,'" said Tim Ternes, director of the Saint John's Bible tour.

The mistakes are clever, but the images are true works of modern art made to connect visitors to the sacred.

"The Saint John's Bible revives an ancient tradition. It has been more than 500 years since a monastery of any size has commissioned a work like this," Ternes said. "And we now know why, it's a huge undertaking! Back in 1995, when the project was first discussed, we decided we wanted to keep that tradition alive in the modern world."

Two visitors have seen the original and they, too, are hand letterers, hoping to preserve a disappearing art form.

"We have known about this Bible since its inception. A lot of us have received smaller editions as they have been produced. We love this," said Liz Margetts, who is a hand letterer. "It's absolutely stunning. It's beautiful. Not only do we love what we would call illustrations, but we love the lettering. It's absolutely gorgeous."

"In the original, the gold is real gold and you can buff that until you literally … can see your own face in the gold. I like the idea that it is a reflection of all of us," said hand letterer Faye Maxfield, "because if we all don't understand that we have a little piece of the divine in ourselves, we never accomplish very much."

The originals, worth millions, never leave Saint John's Abbey and University in Minnesota. The gold is 24-carat. The Bible also has detailing in silver leaf and platinum. 

The next best thing has come to Utah for people of all faiths to see and feel.

"You can't stop turning pages, and that's the one thing about this exhibit that's different than anything else. You can touch the Bible, you can look at it, you can experience it," said the Rev. Waldon.

The six-volume exhibition will remain at the Cathedral Church of Saint Mark through Saturday. There are also lectures scheduled and an interfaith service, and all are free to the public.

E-mail: cmikita@desnews.com

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