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Oklahoma City Museum of Art exhibit showcases The Saint John's Bible and the beauty of illumination

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It’s not every day, or even every century, that a Benedictine monastery commissions an illuminated Bible.

Oklahoma City Museum of Art (OKCMOA) hosts special exhibit Sacred Words: The Saint John’s Bible & the Art of Illumination Oct. 15-Jan. 8, 2017.

Pieces on display include the titular Saint John’s Bible and illuminated texts from Islamic and Jewish faith traditions.

In 1995, Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota was one of the first Benedictine monasteries in over 500 years to commission an illuminated Bible, said Catherine Shotick, assistant curator of exhibitions and coordinating curator of the exhibit.

“It was created using all the traditional medieval methods. It was handwritten on vellum using a hand-cut quill … using all-natural inks and gilded in gold and silver and platinum,” Shotick said.

Although the project was commissioned in Minnesota, a scriptorium in Wales created The Saint John’s Bible under the direction of Donald Jackson, the Queen of England’s calligrapher.

The scribes paid homage to the Abbey’s location by including flora and fauna from Minnesota in the marginalia of the text, Shotick said.

She said the entire text of The Saint John’s Bible comprises 1,150 pages and seven volumes.

“It was an enormous project,” Shotick said, “It was completed in 2011, so about 15 years from the very beginning to the last word was written. The actual text is the New Revised Standard Version, so it’s an accepted translation.”

While the illuminated manuscript resembles those of the past, its creators brought the art into modern times.

“They really took all these modern visuals to make it a contemporary visual translation, which I think kind of makes it very different from some of the older illuminated manuscripts that we also have in the exhibition,” said Becky Weintz, director of marketing and communications at OKCMOA.

Illustrations include a view from the Hubble telescope, visual references to the Holocaust and a microscopic look at a virus.

Shotick said The Saint John’s Bible shows the “mutual vision” of Saint John’s Abbey’s ideologies and Donald Jackson’s artistic vision.

“I think they were very successful in their collaboration. The end result, I think, is proof of that,” Shotick said.

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Human hand

While the exhibit’s centerpiece is The Saint John’s Bible and its production, it also takes a larger focus.

“We’re looking at the history of illumination,” Shotick said. “It’s not just a Bible exhibition. It’s the history of the process of illuminating.”

Illuminated texts from other Abrahamic religions, the Torah and the Qur’an, will provide an interfaith context for the exhibit.

“One thing I think is pretty unique with this exhibition, too, is there are so many different ways to approach it,” Weintz said. “If you’re coming for the religious aspect, that’s great. We have Judaism, Christianity and Islam all represented. Or if you’re coming for the art of the book … we’ve got that aspect to it.”

Despite various points of theological divergence, all of the illuminated texts reveal a similar process of artistic production.

“It’s that quality over quantity,” Shotick said. “It’s really just the human hand. It’s incredible what it can do.”

Shotick said illuminated manuscripts were prolific in the Middle Ages, often commissioned by the wealthy for personal devotion. However, she also said monasteries commissioned larger books for a more communal purpose.

“It’s this fascination with this idea of extreme wealth and these illuminated manuscripts and also the idea of community and togetherness in this history of these incredible documents,” Shotick said.

The museum setting provides a public context, as well.

“We’re not exhibiting it as one book,” Shotick said. “It’s unbound, so it’s spread throughout the entire exhibition space. When it’s open, it’s 2 feet by 3 feet big. … It’s something that they want to be shared, not held and kept private.”

The text’s size allows for examination from different vantage points, just like other works of art.

“You can actually read the text of the Bible while you’re looking at the illuminations,” she said. “If I were a visitor looking at this for the first time, I would take a close look at every little element, because there’s a story behind everything or there’s a meaning behind everything. But then they can also be appreciated just for their beauty, from far away.”

Weintz said the exhibit also functions as contemporary art.

“It’s going to have a lot of different entry points for visitors,” she said.

The exhibit features a film about the production of The Saint John’s Bible and materials and sketches from the process.

OKCMOA will show Dekalog, 10 hour-long films about the Ten Commandments, on the exhibit’s opening weekend.

Weintz said the exhibit also features lectures from scholar Elaine Pagels and from Father Eric Hollas, an Oklahoman who currently resides at Saint John’s Abbey.

“I think it’s a true feat, a true artistic feat,” Shotick said.

Print headline: Artful illumination, Not your ancestors’ holy book, The Saint John’s Bible uses modern text and visuals to illuminate a centuries-old process.

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