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An illuminated Bible for the 21st century

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You'll have to head to Collegeville, Minnesota to see the original copy of the Saint John's Bible, the first hand-written and -illuminated Bible created since the advent of the printing press. Saint John's Abbey and University commissioned Donald Jackson (calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth!) to create the massive tome.

But the next best thing is now on display at the Indiana Interchurch Center: an exhibition of 25 giclee prints of pages from the Bible — so detailed that you "can see the raised gold leaf," says curator Ginger Bievenour — plus a facsimile of the Pentateuch (the Bible's first five books). The show will be complemented by a month's worth of programming, including a calligraphy workshop, a lecture on the Bible's impact on the world, a panel discussion on social justice and the Pentateuch and a storytelling event featuring Asian creation stories.

A calligrapher works on the Saint John's Bible using a custom-made quill.
  • A calligrapher works on the Saint John's Bible using a custom-made quill.

Bievenour, a former executive director of the Hoosier Salon who now curates the Indiana Interchurch Center's gallery, which hosts approximately six exhibitions a year, says the Saint John's Bible was perfectly suited to the center's mission of fostering "interfaith understanding." The Bible may have been commissioned by monks, she notes, but it was always "meant to be accessible to people of all faiths." Jackson and his team worked on the Bible — which is two feet tall, three feet wide and numbers over 1100 pages — from 1995 to 2011.

The frontispiece to Genesis exemplifies that syncretic, open-ended approach by bringing together images from a variety of traditions, from Arabic calligraphy to cave painting. Bievenour says all of the books' illustrations/illuminations are "dynamic and complex" and tend to challenge or play off of more traditional representations of Biblical characters. Take Adam and Eve, who are depicted as African and "are a departure from what you might think of from the Renaissance, where Adam and Eve are characterized as two white individuals covering their private parts with a fig leaf," she says.

Adam and Eve encounter a snake in an illustration from the Saint John's Bible.
  • Adam and Eve encounter a snake in an illustration from the Saint John's Bible.

It all makes for an extraordinary reading and viewing experience that bridges centuries — and faith traditions. "When the printing press came into being in the 15th century, the idea of doing a handwritten Bible with illuminations took a backseat," she says. "At a time when technology makes everything so easy and accessible, having something that was done by hand using the old methods — they made their own quills, they used blocks of color from the 19th century that were carefully squirreled away for future use — there's something about that that's both appealing and compelling. It's a very up-to-date version, however. You see images of the Twin Towers, the DNA helix, a view of Earth from outer space."

The frontispiece to Genesis "reflects the seven-day progression of the Bible's Creation story, with seven vertical strips, one for each day," according to the Library of Congress.
  • The frontispiece to Genesis "reflects the seven-day progression of the Bible's Creation story, with seven vertical strips, one for each day," according to the Library of Congress.

EVENTS:

All events at Indiana Interchurch Center, 1100 W. 42nd St.

• Jan. 6, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Opening reception

• Jan. 10, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Calligraphy workshop (call 923-3617 to reserve space)

• Jan. 13, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Lecture: The Bible as a Mirror of the Ages with Peter Thuesen

• Jan. 21, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Panel discussion: Justice in the Five Books (featuring a panel of religious leaders)

• Jan. 27, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Storytelling: Asian creation stories (featuring stories from Hindu, Buddist and Sikh traditions)

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