A monk sits at his desk in a medieval scriptorium. He carefully sharpens his quill, pushing his small, sharp penknife through the tip to create a delicate but sturdy point and he thinks. He is pleased, even, he might be ashamed to say, a little proud of the page he has just finished. Outside his window, he can hear gulls over the waves of Lake Constance in Germany; he lives and works at the island monastery of Reichenau, famed for its manuscripts. The book on which he works will contain the four gospels, and is intended to grace the altar of a church dedicated to St. Peter. He hopes his abbot, Berno, will approve of his work, but there are still many more pages to write. Suddenly, church bells call him to prayer; he will have to continue his work tomorrow.
Nearly 1,000 years later, another scribe sits at his desk and sharpens his quill. Outside he hears a raven, and then a truck trundling down a nearby road. He is also working on a book for a monastery, but in this case the church is nearly 4,000 miles and an ocean away. He is not a monk, but he also worries about what the abbot, and many others of that distant community, will think about his work. Just then he hears the fax machine ring; the scriptorium around him is a busy place, and there is always another task to see to.
These two scribes may be separated by centuries of time and technological development, but they are united by a common craft. The books they made, and many more like them from the world over, will be on display at the Walters from February 15–May 24, 2009 in the exhibition The Saint John's Bible: A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods. Featuring nearly 40 volumes from the Walters' world-renowned collection of manuscripts and rare books, this exhibition will examine the historical traditions of illuminated scripture in the context of a 21st-century manuscript, The Saint John's Bible. Although it is still yet to be finished, The Saint John's Bible has already been recognized as a masterpiece of contemporary calligraphy and book arts, and this exhibition marks the first time the manuscript has been examined in its historical context.
The idea of making a manuscript Bible may seem strange at the dawn of the 21st century, particularly considering the time and resources that go into making such a large book: when finished, the seven-volume bible will contain 1,150 pages and measure approximately three feet wide by two feet tall when open. But a quick glance at the illuminations throughout the book reveals that this is a project very much of its time. The artists use bold, abstract designs and collage techniques to create stirring compositions that often incorporate visual imagery from the modern world, such as computer voice-prints and images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The community at Saint John's University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, which commissioned the manuscript, has a long tradition of scholarly inquiry and social engagement, and many of the illuminations reflect these concerns through references to the biblical past and current events. As a whole, the project represents an ambitious effort to envision a modern biblical art that is nevertheless deeply rooted in the long-standing tradition of manuscript production
That tradition, both in Christianity and in religions throughout the world, can be traced through the Walters superb collection of manuscripts and rare books. Featured in this exhibition will be manuscripts from many different religious traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Particularly striking and beautiful is a Thai manuscript, in an accordion-folding format, that illustrates the many ways in which elephants were believed to bring good luck to the Thai royal court. The exhibition will also look at the history of calligraphy, both in the past and as it is practiced today. Fine examples of Medieval, Renaissance, and Islamic scripts will accompany works by highly-regarded contemporary calligraphers Sheila Waters, Julian Waters, and Mohamed Zakariya, vividly showing how contemporary lettering artists continue to build on the tradition they have inherited.
As a whole, the history of manuscripts, particularly as represented in this show, encourages us to reflect on how our understanding of what we read depends on the form in which we read it. In an age of disposable media—magazines, newspapers, and, above all, digital texts viewed on computers—it is easy to read things quickly and without much thought. When each book is a unique object, as all manuscripts are, both the maker and the reader are inspired to consider words and pictures much more carefully and deeply.
The Saint John's Bible: A Modern Manuscript through Medieval Methods is presented by the Women's Committee of the Walters Art Museum. The exhibition is organized by the Walters Art Museum in association with the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's Abbey and University.