Illuminating the Word: The St. John's Bible


Quill Curing

Image of Illumination for CreationThe scribes require quills that are both strong and supple. The best ones come from mature turkeys, swans, and geese. Before they can be used for writing, the quills must be cured, cut, and trimmed. Curing is a hardening process. A studio assistant begins by removing the ends with a quill knife and leaving the quills to soak for twenty-four hours. The next day the assistant takes out the internal membrane and pours warm sand (which has been heated in a frying pan) over each quill while rotating it. When the barrel (shaft) of the quill turns from milky to clear, the sand is removed, and the hardened quills are stored in a jar. Next, the long barbs on one side of the quill are stripped away. A series of three scooping cuts with a quill knife, a slit, and a final trim to the point quickly turn the quill into a responsive writing tool. Now the quill is ready for writing.

Vellum Preparation

The skins used in The Saint John's Bible come from a vellum factory, where they have been prepared to a certain extent. However, a studio assistant must do the final preparation to ensure a perfect writing surface, a job referred to at the scriptorium as "scrutching." The skins are rubbed down with abrasives to achieve the right texture. First, the skin is placed on a smooth table and rubbed with relatively coarse sandpaper to raise the nap and to work in and flatten the veins, evening the surface. An infinitesimally fine layer of the skin is rasped off. The next step is the addition of gum sandarac, a resin that has been ground with a mortar and pestle and put in a fine-weave linen bag. Dusting the skin with the bag sifts the gum sandarac evenly across the surface. Then, using a finer grade of sandpaper and a circular motion, the assistant rubs down the skin again, stopping often to check the result. As the work proceeds, the assistant rubs ever more gently, until the finish becomes soft and velvety.

Graphics Layout

On a computer, the project's graphic designer/typesetter devises the precise layout of every page. This allows the scribes to work simultaneously, since they know in advance exactly how each page will begin and end. Using a typeface that closely approximates the script Jackson designed for the Bible, the graphic designer/typesetter determines the space for each letter based on raw digital text of the New Revised Standard Version, which follows prescribed guidelines. Paragraphing and spacing between paragraphs are integral parts of the translation, and a special dictionary establishes acceptable word breaks. Printouts are created to be used by the scribes, illuminators, and proofreaders.

Ruling Up

When a page of vellum has been prepared, pencil lines are ruled on it for the scribes to follow. A dummy page shows where space should be left for illuminations and how many lines are needed. A line guide placed on the side of the drawing table, with marks for each text and note line, ensures uniform ruling on all the pages. To mark the column widths, a ruling guide is centered on the page and holes the correct distance apart are pricked at the bottom and the top. Vertical pencil lines are then drawn along a metal ruler laid between the holes.


In every illumination, gold is the first design element placed on the page. Three types of gilding are used in The Saint John's Bible: powdered gold, acrylic medium, and gesso. Gesso gilding is the most technically demanding and produces the most spectacular result. Gesso usually consists of plaster, white lead, sugar, fish glue, and a bit of powdered color. It is prepared in advance and kept as small dried cakes until needed. The gilder wets the gesso with water and glair, a liquid drained from beaten egg whites. The rather thick gesso is laid on with a quill or a brush. When dry, it is scraped and smoothed with a sharp knife. Then it is covered with gold leaf--incredibly thin sheets of 24-karat gold. On a suede gilder's cushion, the gold leaf is cut into small pieces, which the gilder applies one at a time with a finger (the skin's natural oil attracts the gold leaf). Moisture from the gilder's breath, delivered gently through a bamboo tube, activates the glue in the gesso. When the application is complete, the gold is covered with a silk cloth and burnished. The slightly raised contours, typical of gesso gilding, reflect light and enhance the gold's effect.

Tools and Materials

This selection of tools and materials used by the scribes and illuminators includes hand-carved stamps, antique inks and powdered pigments, a mortar and pestle, quills and brushes, penknives, packets of gold leaf squares, a gilder's cushion and gilder's knife, burnishers, practice samples of vellum, and an antique drafting set.

From Sketch to Illumination

The Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT) at Saint John's University selects the passages to be illuminated in each volume of The Saint John's Bible. The CIT sends Donald Jackson a set of briefs discussing the proposed illuminations and the theological content the committee feels each illumination should express. As the initial sketches are developed, Jackson and project coordinator, Rebecca Cherry, send digital images and explanations to the CIT by e-mail. The committee members review the sketches for theological content and send back their observations. When the CIT formally approves a sketch, Jackson proceeds with the illumination.

Preliminary Sketches

These preliminary and final sketches for several of the illuminations in The Saint John's Bible reveal something of Donald Jackson's working method. He begins with a large brush, feeling his way into the composition by loosely blocking in areas of light and dark. He uses inexpensive gold paint to represent gold leaf. A sketch quickly becomes a collage as Jackson cuts and pastes and tapes, adjusting the elements of the design. Illuminations are approved by the Committee on Illumination and Text while still in a rough stage, allowing the artist some freedom and freshness in executing the final work.