Since the beginning of Benedictine monasticism monks and nuns have written original works of art that were used in the monastery library or assisting the praying community. Some of the monks and nuns copied existing manuscripts in order to have copies of a text in their own monastery or to send to other people. The Benedictine way of life creates new things and it preserves others. Kindles and iPads are somewhat foreign concepts in a culture that’s manual, personal and original. But modern means ought not be totally dismissed as incongruent to the old ways of doing things.
The monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University have commissioned the Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten, Illuminated Bible, the first work of this type in 500 years, that is, since the advent of the printing press. Certainly, the monks are leaving their mark on Catholic culture in the US for centuries to come. The artists commenced in 1998 with the idea of igniting the theological, liturgical and spiritual imagination of all people. The Saint John’s Bible illuminates the Word of God for the 21st century.
The dimensions of Saint John’s Bible is a manuscript that stands 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide when open. The head calligrapher is Donald Jackson, the calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth II. Jackson proposed the idea to Benedictine Father Eric Hollas who then waited three months before proposing the idea to Abbot John and the monks of Saint John’s. It’s written on vellum, using quills, natural hand-made inks, hand-ground pigments and gold leaf while incorporating various 21st century themes, images and technology. Artwork includes images of the World Trade Center towers, ashen skulls recalling the Cambodian killing fields, flora and fauna of Minnesota
On April 24, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI received the Books of Wisdom literature of the Saint John Bible and said it was “a work of art, a great work of art” and w “work for eternity.”
More info on the Bible project can be seen here.
Portions of the Saint John’s Bible is on display at The Church of Saint Paul the Apostle (9th Avenue & West 59th Street, NYC) until December 17.
The Abbey of Regina Laudis is a special place in Connecticut; and one of the special Benedictine monasteries in the USA. I’ve been spending more time there in recent months either attending the Divine Office and/or Mass or spending a few days in St Joseph’s Guest House (for men, there are guests for women, married folks, & clergy).
If the crèche at
the Abbey of
Regina Laudis strikes you as a little out place, there’s a good
reason. The austere Yankee barn that houses it is a world away from its previous
home. Handcrafted by artisans in Naples, the intricate nativity scene was
presented as a coronation gift to Victor Amadeus II, king of Sardina, in 1720.
It remained among Italian nobility until it was purchased by Loretta Hines
Howard, an artist and collector, in 1949. She immediately donated it to what
was then a fledgling Benedictine Abbey in, fittingly, Bethlehem, Connecticut
(although the nuns insist the name is a coincidence).
The crèche takes a few
liberties with the traditional nativity story. Instead of a Judean village,
Bethlehem appears here somewhere on the coast of Italy. The stable has been
replaced by Corinthian columns, and the traditional kings and shepherds are
joined by a whole host of other characters, who have shed their New Testament
robes for 18th-century knickers and coats. In one corner, some
peasants argue over the contents of a stem pot. In another, a noblewoman walks
her whippet on a leash. The crowd is puzzling at first, though it may
serve a distinct purpose. “For as
many people as there are, there are attitudes toward the birth of Christ,” says
Sister Angèle Arbib, who helps care for the crèche. She points out some figures
who seems reverential, others who seem distracted or dis-believing: “It’s so
representative. When people come here to see the crèche, they identify with
someone in here.”
And people of all faiths do come to see it. The mass of
Christmas pilgrims has returned after a recent restoration had taken the crèche
out of public view for three years. Conservators from New York’s Metropolitan
Museum of Art painstakingly repaired each of the 68 figures and the tiny
hand-sewn outfits they wear. The results are stunning. The crèche now stands as
a testament to the continued support of the community of nuns,
preservationists, and believers that has formed around it. It’s fitting. After
all, what is a nativity other than a story of people coming together?
November/December, Vol. 74, No. 6.
Abbey of Regina Laudis
273 Flanders Road
The crèche is open to the public daily 10-4 through Jan. 5 (closed Jan. 6-Apr. 24)