Inscribing the Word

At a scriptorium in Wales, calligraphers are applying medieval arts to create the 21st-century Saint John’s Bible

At a small scriptorium near Monmouth, Wales, several calligraphers and artists are bent over drafting tables. They are working on the first Bible to be written and illustrated entirely by hand since the invention of movable type more than 500 years ago. Worktables hold the tools of the trade: small piles of gold leaf, brushes to apply it, blunt hematite burnishers to polish it, jars filled with quills, bottles of soot-black ink, small tins of brilliant hues.

In 1995 the renowned British calligrapher, Donald Jackson (who is also one of the Queen's official scribes), proposed this monumental undertaking to administrators and scholars at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Jackson had chaired calligraphy courses at Saint John's over a 20-year span. Ultimately, Saint John's agreed to support the project, provided that the Bible be "contemporary, ecumenical, multicultural and prophetic."

Today, Jackson and his team of artisans have completed the first illustrations and text pages for the Bible, which will, in seven volumes, contain 1,150 pages and 160 illuminations, at a cost of about $4 million. (Most of the funds have been raised from private donors.) The Bible, scheduled for completion in 2004, remains an all-consuming task for its creators.

Says Jackson, "I want people to say 'Ah' when they look at the Saint John's Bible, not only because they are dazzled by the gold and vermilion, or awed by the calligraphy, but because they discover something inside themselves, something they may not have known was there."

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.