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Librarian analyzes rare Bible

Caitlin Housley | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Saint Mary’s Librarian Robert Hohl analyzed the College’s copy of the rare Saint John’s Bible during his Tuesday lecture in Vander Vennet Theatre.

The Saint John’s Bible is one of only 299 copies of the handwritten Benedictine Bible and is the first completely handwritten Bible of this scale created in the past 500 years, Hohl said.

Hohl said he visited the original Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota in September. During his trip, he said he learned more about the intricate work of the Bible’s main calligrapher, Donald Jackson, and his mission in creating the Saint John’s Bible.

Hohl broke his discussion into three glances at the Bible — the “encyclopedic perspective,” the “living letter” and the “word conjoined with the Word.”

His first glance, the encyclopedic perspective, analyzed the knowledge preserved in the book through aesthetic details.

“While the text is central, much of our delight … is found in the decorations and illuminations” Hohl said.

The Bible is an illuminated manuscript, meaning it incorporates a gold finish that causes the book to reflect light, Hohl said. This gold represents God and his presence in the literary work.

“Even a square of gold or the tiniest fleck signals to us that God is present,” he said.

In addition, the Bible includes flecks of platinum that reflected the reader’s image.

The detail and hand-drawn intricate graphics support the text and help the reader interpret the story, Hohl said.

Each book of the Saint John’s Bible reflects its medieval biblical precursor in regard to its drawings, incorporating imitations of plants and insects in a precise replication of the organisms. Hohl said in the first chapter of Matthew, Jackson even wove spirals of DNA into a graphic representing Jesus and his ancestors.

In addition, much of the medieval biblical writings incorporated a sense of humor. In the Wisdom of Solomon, artist Chris Tomlin failed to incorporate a piece of text into its correct place, Hohl said. In order to correct the mistake, Tomlin included the text in a box at the bottom of the page and connected the box to a string on a pulley held by a bee. The bee was pulling the text into its proper place.

His second glance focused on the “living letter,” or the continued scriptural tradition of the Bible.

Hohl said, “littera scripta manet. Atque viva — the written word remains. And it lives.”

Each calligrapher, through their individual representation of the word, contributed to telling and preserving the word of the Lord for years to come.

In his final glance, Hohl examined the “word conjoined with the Word,” meaning the written text and its deeper meaning.

“The zeal of preserving and passing on the ancient word still shines through the written manuscript,” Hohl said.

The energy of the calligraphers emanates through the artistic style of the Bible, and helps breathe life into the Word, he said.

The Saint John’s Bible is a sum of time, treasure and talent, Hohl said.

The Bible was a gift from Saint Mary’s alumna Judy Rauenhorst Mahoney. It is available for viewing at Saint Mary’s Cushwa-Leighton library.