BYU Special Collections acquires contemporary Illuminated John’s Bible facsimile

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The L. Tom Perry Special Collections Department in the library seeks to reignite the medieval reverie of the Bible on campus and throughout the community through the acquisition of a set of Saint John’s Bible facsimiles.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten, illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in more than 500 years. Minnesota’s St. John’s Abbey and University commissioned the 15-year project to Donald Jackson (personal scribe of Queen Elizabeth II), who was aided by a team of scholars, scribes, artists and Benedictine monks to complete the 1,150-page work.

A facsimile of one of the volumes is on display on the first floor of the Harold B. Lee Library, but Special Collections aims to permanently acquire the full seven-piece replica set.

No detail was spared in the formation of the larger-than-life scripture, from the vellum pages to the hand-cut quills, the 19th-century Chinese ink and the gold leafing. According to Maggie Kopp, curator of rare books for Special Collections, the facsimiles were created with similar precision and care.

An original St. John version of the Bible is on display in Special Collections at the HBLL. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

“The facsimiles are made out of the same material,” Kopp said. “Though the pages were copied through photographic imaging, Donald Jackson had gold leaf printed onto the paper and had people come in and do retouching and add handiwork. I think he signed off on each page before they bound it.”

The Bible features intricate script as well as contemporary art — modern-day illuminations.

“A head scribe designed the handwriting style, and a team at the university made up of professors and monks sat down and decided which passages would be illustrated,” Kopp said. “There was no direction for artistic interpretation; they just said, ‘This is important, this deserves to be highlighted.'”

The pages of the volume on display are turned once each week to allow students and visitors to experience the craftsmanship of the Bible anew, but even one page provides ample food for thought.

“It contains a lot of abstract work, based on the letter and word forms,” Kopp said. “The art doesn’t often show faces — it’s meant to be something you look at and interpret for yourself.”

Cali O’Donnell, the promotion and outreach coordinator, works with the benefactors whose donations will allow the library to acquire the complete set. She recalled observing the donors’ first interaction with the facsimile.

“It was so interesting to watch the change in their faces as they looked at that Bible and ever-so-reverently turned the pages and looked at the different images,” O’Donnell said. “There is just something different about this Bible. It’s hard to describe, but I witnessed it. It really did touch them in a way that a mass-produced, printed Bible sitting on the shelf can’t.”

Once acquired, O’Donnell hopes the Bible will play an active role in the community.

“Our Special Collections is very interested in sharing what they have; they don’t just want to have things in a back room, safe and sound so they’ll last forever,”  O’Donnell said. “They want people to use them as well. We hope students and faculty and community members will come and see these Bibles. We anticipate doing more outreach in the community and sharing them with other congregations in the valley.”

Kopp echoed O’Donnell’s aspirations.

“I hope it provides some inspiration for anyone who walks down here — that it will catch your eye and make you think of the Bible text differently than when you read it before,” Kopp said. “I hope it will inspire people on their journeys of faith, whatever they may be.”

The facsimiles are a welcome addition for library communications manager Roger Layton.

“We love that it’s on display,” Layton said. “I’m hoping in the future, particularly at Christmas, we can use it with different groups. I think people will really enjoy seeing it.”

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