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Illuminating the Word

Throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period, monasteries were practically the only repository of scholarship and learning. The monks there were by far the best- educated members of society. Monasteries acted as libraries for ancient manuscripts, and many monks were occupied with laboriously copying sacred texts, often in the form of illuminated manuscripts, to help preserve knowledge and culture for the sake of the greater community.

The Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mark 4: 3-9). Aidan Hart, with Donald Jackson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002. The King James Bible. Robert Barker, 1677

These manuscripts were hand-produced books that included drawn, painted and gilded decoration on pages made of vellum, a specially prepared and polished animal skin. The decorations are of three main types: miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text or occupying the whole page or part of the border; initial letters either containing scenes or with elaborate decoration; and borders, which may consist of miniatures or, more often, decorative motifs.

Many different artists and craftsmen were needed to produce each manuscript, including a parchmenter to prepare the vellum, a scribe to copy the text, a rubricator and an illuminator to decorate the manuscript, and a bookbinder to bind the sections together. By the 15th century, with the invention of printing, the illuminated book gradually went out of fashion.

From October – December 2006, the Library hosted a traveling exhibition, “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” which featured selections from a contemporary work created in the tradition of medieval manuscripts.

The exhibition, now available online, showcases the work of Bible Artistic Director Donald Jackson and his team of artists. This group was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., to create the first handwritten, illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery since the advent of the printing press more than 500 years ago.

“Illuminating the Word” also highlights several of the 1,500 Bibles housed in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Library is also the repository of a collection of Arabic script calligraphy sheets housed in the African and Middle Eastern Division. This online presentation of “Selections of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Calligraphy” includes examples of calligraphic art, including illuminated panels, albums and poems.

A. The Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mark 4: 3-9). Aidan Hart, with Donald Jackson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002. The Saint John’s Bible and Saint John’s University. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

B. The King James Bible. Robert Barker, 1677. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction Information: Rights Status Not Evaluated.