Saint John’s Bible inspires awe, confounds

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A detail shot of the illuminated letter “P” in a Latin Bible, illustrated and published in 1407 A.D. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Do words really matter to us? Do we live by them?

After listening to Father Michael Patella’s impressive lecture on Saturday evening, those were the questions I left with.

For those who attended the lecture, this might seem counter-intuitive. Patella’s lecture, “Catholic Biblical Tradition: Ancient and Postmodern,” was not about words so much as it was about images.

Patella, a monk at Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, served as chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text for “The Saint John’s Bible,” the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey since the invention of the printing press. His lecture addressed the theology, art and interpretation of this awe-inspiring work.

“I would maintain ‘The Saint John’s Bible’ reflects the Word of God in the breadth of the Church’s sacramental nature,” Patella said. “If it’s sacramental, it’s Catholic. The genius of the Catholic Church over the centuries has been its ability to meet the world in the world’s
place and time and to find Christ in its midst.”

Patella’s argument relies on the concept of intertextuality. Postmodern biblical exegesis involves the cross-referencing of a variety of textual sources to ascertain the meaning of Scripture.

“Every biblical passage and every biblical image produces a conversation among three partners,” Patella said. “First, there’s the Word of God. Second, there’s the experience of the viewer, the listener or the reader. Then, there’s the voice of faith reaching back
nearly two thousand years.”

“The Word of God is not monochromatic. It is not bound by our limited senses of sight,
hearing, touch, taste and smell. The whole issue of intertextuality takes on a sacramental function. If it’s sacramental, then it’s synesthetic.”

Following this academic exercise on interpretation, Patella showed the audience images of “The St. John’s Bible” alongside relevant images that informed the choices made by the calligrapher Donald Jackson and the committee of theologians who aided him in the creation of the manuscript. These images ranged from a photo taken by the Hubble telescope to a painting by Gustav Klimt. Each image came with an entertaining story told by Patella.

An illuminated manuscript has two appeals: the first is that it updates Scripture to meet the demands imposed by modernity by creating an aesthetic experience within the mind of the viewer. The second is that it grants authority to a text that has been radically democratized.

This democratization occurred with the advent of the printing press. The first book
Gutenberg printed in 1439 was an edition of the “Vulgate,” a translation that is itself a democratization of the Bible from the Vetus Latina used by the early church. Vulgate
comes from the word vulgar, which originally meant “commonly used” or “used ordinarily.”

“The St. John’s Bible” is neither ordinary nor common. It’s extraordinary. The beauty of its images is, indeed, sacramental. The nature of post-modern interpretation does not lend itself to this sort of beauty. According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, postmodernity necessarily involves the questioning of “the rules of the dominant discourse,
it tries to politicize and democratize the university scene.”

At the University of Dallas we learn the skills necessary to engage in this brand of politics. We make intertextual connections between ancient and modern, literary and philosophical
works. Our professors teach by example so that, as the scholar John Ruskin warns, we do not “turn [our] arithmetic to roguery, and [our] literature to lust.”

In “De Bello Gallico,” Julius Caesar describes the educational system of the druids he encounters in Gaul. “They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly, some remain in the course of training twenty years,” Caesar wrote. “Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transaction, they use Greek characters.”

This translation lacks some of the meaning of Caesar’s Latin. The druids did not think writing down their poetic teachings was simply unlawful, but they considered it a sacrilege.

This druidic thought does not comport with Christianity’s evangelical mission, but it is curious. Shouldn’t we be learning by and for the heart? “The St. John’s Bible” is incredibly beautiful. Does it really need to compete with the hyper-saturation of content we find today on television, in newspapers and on the internet?

Words should matter to us. They should be sacramental, ceremonious and believed. We should live by them.

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