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The Saint John’s Bible: A Work of Art

St Johns Bible illuminationIn 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University (@CSBSJU) in Collegeville, Minnesota, commissioned calligrapher Donald Jackson in Wales to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible; the first such Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey in more than 500 years. Using ancient traditional materials such as hand-ground pigments, Chinese stick ink, goose and turkey quills, and calf-skin vellum, the work of sacred art was 13 years in the making. The result is described as the calligrapher’s Sistine Chapel.

[Also see our blogpost, The Saint John’s Bible: A Reflection on Creation]

[See various editions of The Saint John’s Bible available to purchase in the Bible Gateway Store.]

The Saint John’s Bible (@SaintJohnsBible) is the critically-acclaimed $8 million modern/medieval creation by Jackson, one of the world’s foremost Western calligraphers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords, and an international team of scribes and artists. The colorful artwork from precious minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, vermilion, and malachite, and silver, platinum, and 24-karat gold leaf add light and brilliance to the pages, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

Jackson’s process in preparing for each of the more than 160 passage illuminations was similar to the monastic practice of Lectio Divina: a careful mulling over the text, looking at the details, thinking, meditating, and letting it sink in.


Consisting of 1,127 two-foot by three-foot pages in seven volumes (Gospels and Acts completed in May 2002, Pentateuch – August 2003, Psalms – April 2004, Prophets – April 2005, Wisdom Books – July 2006, Historical Books – March 2010, Letters and Revelation – May 2011) with a total weight of more than 165 pounds, the translation used in The Saint John’s Bible is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).


A computer was used to size the text and define line breaks. The pages were laid out in full size spreads with sketches in position. Artists used these layouts to guide their work. Each page is 24 ½” x 15 7/8”, making a two-page spread approximately three feet wide.

Book headings — Each book of the Bible has an illuminated book heading Throughout the Bible, book titles appear on each two-page spread written in English on the left page and in its native translation root (most often Hebrew or in some cases Greek) on the right page.

Verses — Paragraph changes are marked by small colored “kites” alternating in 19th century vermilion water-color (red) and sky blue designer gouache as well as other colors; and the verse numbers appear in the margins. All other verse numbers appear in the line of text and are written with a smaller pen.

Chapter Capitals — The beginning of each chapter begins with a large decorative capital letter. Each decorative capital in the entire project is different.

Script — The calligraphic script was specially designed for The Saint John’s Bible by Donald Jackson. Letters are written in lamp black ink from 19th century Chinese stick inks made from carbon.

Script size — The “x” height describes the size of the script. The small letters are about two millimeters tall. The height of the script is directly proportionate to the size of the quill.

Columns — Each page has two 4 ¾” columns of script. Columns are justified on the left and the right. There are 54 lines per column, and an average of 10.5 words per line.

Marginalia — Small decorative illustrations, often created with gold leaf and other gilding, appear in the margins.

Notations — The official notes from the New Revised Standard Version appear in the lower left and right hand margins of each page.

Beginning 10 minutes into the following video, Jackson demonstrates his calligraphy technique.

The Saint John’s Bible is housed at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (@visitHMML), but is often on tour to museums around the country offering educational and spiritual outreach programs.


A companion website is Seeing The Word (@SeeingTheWord), a program of guided reflection that makes it possible to pray with images from The Saint John’s Bible.


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