Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The St. John's Bible

The celebrated St. John's Bible (the first commissioned calligraphed manuscript Bible in five centuries) is on exhibit at the Library of Congress ... and finding myself with a few free hours this afternoon, on a breezy, brisk fall day, I hopped on the Metro and headed down to R street, staring curiously at a delegation from the People's Liberation Army standing outside the Russell Senate Building.

The exhibit is on the second floor of the Jefferson building (one of the most spectacular buildings in the capital ... see the photos below, taken on a trip in March 2005). The lady at the information desk was like, "Don't you want to see the rest of the building?" "Oh, I've been here before ... " She didn't seem too pleased. Too bad. :-)

And let me tell you, the visit was absolutely worth it. The folios on display are simply stunning. The colors leap out, the modern illuminations are overall, quite powerful, and I found myself speedchless and very moved by some (Particularly the illustration of the Nativity in the Gospel of Luke, and the Tree of Life/Genealogy that's the frontispiece of the Gospel of Matthew).

A very helpful 26-minute BBC-produced video takes one behind the scenes of the venture, with details on the various techniques (which are the same that medieval scribes would have used), materials and so on. (For a second I wondered how many calves had given their skins for this project, entirely on vellum.)

Despite all the care to reproduce medieval techniques and so on (For another second I thought of another Jackson: Peter Jackson and the herculean efforts that went into bringing Tolkein's trilogy to life on celluloid), this really is a modern project. Or rather a post-modern one. "Their [the Benedictines commissioning the Bible] theology is really forward-thinking" as the calligrapher, Donald Jackson remarks in the video. For one: this project could only have been conceived in this manner from within the modern West. Since the resurrection of the classical culture with the Rennaisance, and the rise of historical consciousness, the West has been transfixed by the past. I cannot imagine such a project arising, say, in India. Second, the thing that really struck me was the care taken to incorporate an interreligious perspective (especially, but not really limited to, Judaism and Islam. Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis and pre-historic cave dwellers, all have their own cameos.). So, the beautiful illumination of the Tree of Life that illustrates Jesus' genealogy, going back to Abraham and Sarah, also lists Hagar, and her name is written in Hebrew as well as Arabic (Haajr), to highlight her (and Ishmael's) importance in Islam. Various artistic motifs are borrowed from the Qu'ranic and Jewish manuscript traditions. The most interesting were the Psalms, illustrated only by illuminated voice-prints of the monks chanting Gregorian chant, the (Muslim) adhan, Hindu bhajans, Sufi songs and Hebrew chants, looking like some really esoteric musical writing. This kind of inter-mingling and juxtapositioning of traditions from different symbolic worlds, almost a kind of syncretism, could occur in India (though the Hindu motifs always predominate ... I was reminded of the EME Temple in Baroda for instance), but exemplifies the modern, relativistic West. This is not to suggest that Christianity is downplayed, or that such an approach is illegitimate (For instance, Jewish traditions have their rightful place in the bulk of the Bible, one could argue!). I was even reminded of Nostra Aetate, and the vision of "the rays of truth" that illuminate the world's religions. [It's hard to imagine, say, a modern Qu'ran being comissioned on such principles.] And yes, given the conflicts between people in the world today, this kind of religious juxtapositioning may even help promote harmony. Later in the day, I was relating my experiences to Fr. Tom Stransky (a visiting Paulist, who lives in Jerusalem). He said that the only time the people of the three religions of the Holy Land get together is for an annual concert where the sacred music of all three traditions is performed.

The gift store had a number of (frightfully expensive) prints on sale, as well as notecards and a bunch of other well packaged "gift items." Everything was well beyond the budget of a poor novice. (I did however pick up a guidebook to sites associated with the Civil Rights movement in the South, which was on sale for $2.00. Definitely a novice-friendly price!)

Back in September Amy had a post on the St. John's Bible project, commenting on a review (which I haven't yet read) that appeared in the NY Sun (that made some rather tenuous connections between the project and sexual abuse scandals affecting the Benedictine monastery that commissioned it). Most of her commenters seemed put off by the "modern" illustrations, or the commercialization (they have to pay for all this somehow!). Except those who'd actually seen the thing.

Despite all these criticisms, I think it's worthwhile. If for no other reason that it just seems such an inefficient, "useless" thing to do; despite all the correct interreligious thelogy and so on, it's a thing of breathtaking beauty. And for that, benedicamus Domino!

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