Monday, October 3, 2011

Inscribing the Divine: The St. John's Bible

Inscribing the Divine: The Saint John's Bible, LUMA Museum, through Oct. 23

In 1998, master British calligrapher Donald Jackson (b. 1938) was commissioned to hand letter and illuminate the entire bible, from Genesis to Revelation. No longer proclaimed as the first such project in 500 years, it may well be the first ever that involves an English translation approved by the Catholic Church. The author of “The Calligraphers Art”, Jackson has been a major force in the revival of same, and his abilities have been complemented by up to 20 collaborators under his supervision.

The thirteen bifolia from the Pentateuch and Psalms included in this exhibit only hint at the scope of this project, which cost over 4 million dollars, and has lasted over 10 years. A Committee on Illumination and Text, comprised of Benedictine scholars, supervised theological content. Their approach has been ecumenical and text centered, offering a cogitation on ideas rather than picture windows onto the world.

Chris Tomlin’s meticulous, naturalistic illustrations of plants and insects appear occasionally in the margins and Aidan Hart’s Byzantine figuration appears in the later books. But mostly this project reflects the simple, clean, though sometimes enervated elegance of Donald Jackson’s calligraphy, complemented by the bright, loose splashes of color in his illuminations.

The narrative illustrations are few and far between, but when they occur they can be fascinating and innovative. For example, the dark, spotted, discontented faces of Adam and Eve are a far cry from the sweet, innocent bunglers of tradition. Nor are they full figure nudes. And God does not appear as that big old guy in the “Creation” that Wiligelmo and Michelangelo once imagined him. Indeed, the seven stages of creation, beginning with the “big bang” and culminating in abstract human images that resemble Paleolithic rock paintings, might just as well have been used in a grade school text book on natural history.

The institutional, ecumenical and decorative priorities of this project, and its supervision by a calligrapher, may preclude exciting, visionary imagery, But since the modern technology of reproduction and distribution allows this kind of labor intensive project to be profitable, hopefully, many other Christian institutions will be inspired to commission their own versions with a greater emphasis on story telling. Most of the bible illustration done today is at, or below, the aesthetic level of cereal boxes. From the fall of the Roman empire up to the 19th Century, biblical narration was the primary subject of Western art, and nothing that came after has sustained its focus on human dignity, destiny, and spirituality.