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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rivier University exhibit celebrates millennium with modern-day illuminated Bible

For many familiar with the Bible, it evokes images of Jesus walking through the desert, meeting followers by a river or talking with locals at a temple.

But visitors to the Rivier University Art Gallery may be surprised to see the man depicted in some out-of-the-ordinary settings: walking through a junkyard, with smashed cars and bent metal all around him, or standing in the center of a city skyscape. ...

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For many familiar with the Bible, it evokes images of Jesus walking through the desert, meeting followers by a river or talking with locals at a temple.

But visitors to the Rivier University Art Gallery may be surprised to see the man depicted in some out-of-the-ordinary settings: walking through a junkyard, with smashed cars and bent metal all around him, or standing in the center of a city skyscape.

The art is part of the St. John’s Bible, a modern-day work done in the medieval tradition of illuminated Bibles, on display at the gallery this month.

“I wanted to share this history with the modern generation,” Sister Theresa Couture, director of the gallery, said about bringing “A Gift to the World: The Saint John’s Bible” to the university.

The St. John’s Bible was commissioned more than 15 years ago by St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. It is the first handwritten and illuminated Bible created since the invention of the printing press around 1450, and it was worked on by a dozen calligraphers and many artists before its completion in 2011.

Illuminated Bibles, which featured ornate script and elaborate illustrations, often including inlaid gold on pages of vellum, were traditional during the Middle Ages, when monks and nobility were often the only literate people in a community. Monks made the Bibles by hand, scribing the words in Latin.

With the invention of the printing press, however, the tradition of handwritten Bibles was left behind.

A British calligrapher, Donald Jackson, a scribe for Queen Elizabeth, came up with the idea to create an illuminated Bible for the modern age, Couture said.

And during a visit to St. John’s, where St. John’s Abbey is located, he shared his ideas with the monks there. They were hooked, and planning for the project began soon afterward.

The project, Couture said, has been looked at as a way to celebrate the new millennium by putting a modern spin on a traditional art form.

While the book may have been created in the traditional way, modern devices and ideas do have their place in the book.

Computers were used to design the layouts of individual pages, although the pages themselves were done by hand. And with most of the scribes and artists for the project in Britain, with the St. John’s theologians in the United States, email was important to ensure collaboration between the two groups, Couture said.

The majority of the work was done in as much of a traditional manner as possible. The pages are made of vellum, or calf skin, the script was written with a traditional quill and the ink was similar to the type that would have been used during the Middle Ages.

Still, the art in the illuminated book shows some contemporary ideas, Couture said.

For one, the Bible features imagery from many major religions, not simply Catholicism.

On one page, a Jewish menorah is used to make a family tree, linking Jesus to the prophet Abraham.

Hebrew script, and imagery from Islam and other religions, can be found throughout the decorated pages of the Bible.

“They wanted to bring in imagery that would show that the message of the Bible is in line with the message of all other major religious books,” Couture said. “It’s a very fascinating project.”

And while some of the art in the Bible is reminiscent of traditional illuminated Bibles, other pages could be found in a modern art museum, featuring bright colors, abstract images and modern-day scenes of cities, technology and religious figures.

The words of the Bible itself are written in more modern English.

All of the work, Couture said, was an attempt to make the book accessible to today’s generations, no matter what their religious affiliation.

“I think they felt that in our millennium now, we should work toward understanding what we have in common rather than what differentiates us,” she said of the world’s major religions. “We may not share all the same rituals or even doctrines, but the message about how to live with respect to one another, that is a message that all great religions subscribe to.”

The exhibit has been popular at Rivier so far, Couture said, with many visitors and classes coming to the galley to view the work. That, she said, is exactly the impact she hoped the exhibit would have.

With most of the traditional illuminated Bibles remaining in Europe, many Americans have never seen one, she said.

Couture said she hopes the exhibit helps educate the public about the tradition, as well as show them how the message of the Bible can be relevant to many individuals.

“I think it’s just an incredible project,” she said.

Rivier University will hold a public forum on the exhibit, featuring a number of speakers from the university community, at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Dion Center Reception Room. The work will be examined from the perspective of art history, as well as theology.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).