Monks’ Millennial Bible project debuts in Moorhead

It had been 500 years since Benedictine monks labored with quill by candlelight to inscribe the Bible onto calfskin pages – an art nearly lost after the printing press supplanted painstaking calligraphy as a means of spreading sacred texts. But now, after 15 years of creative labor, the modern counterparts of those faithful monks, based at St. John’s University, have produced the first hand-drawn Bible of the modern age.

Blending ancient texts with modern sensibilities, the long-awaited St. John’s Bible is on display at the Hjemkomst Center through the end of 2017. It’s the 26th stop on the pages’ world tour, which has included London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, and cities in every corner of America.

“This is the largest art exhibition in our history,” says Davin Wait of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Christened “Illuminating the Word,” the display of 68 original, hand-drawn pages of the masterwork – which was completed in 2013 – launches its local residency Friday. An opening reception is planned from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

When the flatbed truck bearing the encased exhibit arrived in Moorhead two weeks ago, it marked a thrilling moment for local artist and calligrapher Anne Kaese. She has followed the gargantuan project since St. John’s University launched it in 1998. An enthusiastic supporter of the historical recreation of the hand-lettered and -illustrated Bibles that were the norm before invention of the printing press, she admits that she shed tears at first glimpse of the painstakingly crafted manuscript: “The first case [program director Markus Krueger] took out of its shipping container was the beginning of Ecclesiastes. Butterfly wings, cosmic symbols and high energy virtually leap off the page when you glimpse it. Yes, some of us wept when we saw it. It was a deeply moving experience.

“This project has been carried out from the very beginning by people who are passionate about seeing the Bible in all the truth of what we have learned in the last 500 years,” she explains. “This is a Bible that’s truly ours. The artists have interpreted it in light of science, history, research and fact. Yet the number one priority is just the same: to inspire every visitor’s spiritual imagination, no matter what their beliefs.”

Adam and Eve, for example, are no longer blue-eyed blondes. Instead, they’re depicted resembling the people of northeast Africa, where the oldest human remains have been found. They wear the region’s traditional wedding garb and are surrounded by historic textiles and beadwork.

Calligraphers have transcribed the New Revised Standard Version onto the vellum folios, she adds, generally accepted by most religious denominations as the most accurate translation of the ancient texts. Among its revelations, reflected by the art that illustrates its stories, is a stronger emphasis on the participation of women and what Anne calls “traditionally underrepresented peoples.” The account of Christ’s family tree, she says, now includes foremothers as well as forefathers – a logical yet long-overlooked addition.

The illustrations – or “illuminations” – draw inspiration from a host of worldwide cultures as well as the rich trove of ancient Christian symbology. “You can spot Hindu mandals, Buddhist prayer wheels, Islamic flames of faith and Jewish menorahs,” Anne points out, “all of it interspersed with spiral strands of DNA.”

Bringing the St. John’s Bible to Fargo-Moorhead has been Anne’s dream since the South Africa native and her family moved here in 2005. She had heard of the project when it was first conceived as an inspired way for the Order of St. Benedict and St. John’s to mark the end of Christianity’s second eon. Spurred by her excitement, local enthusiasts too have developed a taste for the one-of-a-kind creative work and all that surrounds it.

This three-month engagement – through the end of the year – is the third chapter in Fargo-Moorhead’s fascination with the original pages, which will eventually bound into seven oversized volumes and permanently housed in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Collection at St. John’s. The first was in 2011, when 25 prints of early pages were shown at the Hjemkomst. The heritage edition of the finished pages – a bound reproduction – visited the center in 2013.

“We’ve been working on this exhibition since that one ended,” executive director Maureen Kelly Jonason notes. Hosting the original pages themselves, though, required some upgrading of the museum, particularly in lighting and humidity control. The exhibit area will initially seem dim to visitors, since illumination of the 34 sealed display cases cannot exceed 5 foot-candles in power to prevent UV light from degrading the folios.

Local preparations also included raising some $60,000 to cover the improvements, fees, insurance and cost of gingerly transporting the exhibit – valued at some $6 million — from Collegeville to Moorhead. Meanwhile, Anne and her steering committee were laying plans for educational events surrounding the manuscript, both at the museum and in satellite sites like the Rourke Gallery, Fargo Public Library, Spirit Room, Temple Beth El and First Presbyterian Church.

Davin estimates that attendance may approach 10,000 by the end of December – two or three times the museum’s usual traffic. Among them will be thousands of school children from the John Paul II Network and Crookston parochial schools, along with older students of art, history and philosophy, and others who appreciate the traditional arts the manuscript displays, including calligraphy, tempera and watercolor, and age-old bookbinding techniques. Some of the tools used in its creation will also be on view.

One contingency of hosting the St. John’s Bible has been security for its fragile, priceless pages. Anne has recruited 42 volunteers to staff two-person, four-hour shifts through every hour the museum is open to the public. They’re participated in four hours of training on every aspect of the Bible’s history and creation.

Tim Ternes, the St. John’s administrator who calls himself “the keeper of the pages and keeper of stories,” will be on hand through Sunday to meet visitors at the Hjemkomst and discuss the Bible’s history and its future, which he hopes will last for 1,500 years. Later next week, he’ll also inaugurate a new permanent gallery at the Hill Museum, where the manuscript will reside when its traveling days are over.

The Dickinson, N.D., native – a classroom teacher in St. Cloud before joining St. John’s 14 years ago – says the public’s enthusiasm for the folios has led to altering the original plan. “Originally Moorhead’s was going to be the final exhibit before the pages were bound and used in worship,” Tim says. “Now, we plan to delay binding for five to 10 years so more people will be able to see them.

“What’s most important about the St. John’s Bible, I think, is how it reads across every race, gender, religion and political persuasion,” he muses. “It speaks to those with a deep religious background, of course, but also others who love the art of creating beautiful books, who love contemporary art, who are moved by how traditional passages we know so well have been contemporized in beautiful, sometimes surprising ways.

“There’s something here that seems to touch everyone who sees it, no matter who they are.”

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