Celebrated calligrapher Donald Jackson will come to Vassar on April 20 as the 2013 Curtis Lecture speaker for his work as the artistic director of “The St. John’s Bible.” The lecture will be presented in the Taylor Hall 102 Auditorium from 5 to 6 p.m. Between 1998 and 2011, Mr. Jackson led a group of artists and scholars in Wales and Minnesota to create this bible. As the first hand-written and illuminated bible in over 500 years, it is a monumental undertaking, and Vassar will receive the Heritage Edition of the Bible, which is a rare and highly valuable copy of the text.
The Curtis lecture is an annual event put on by the Library for Special Collections. Founded by John and Julia Blodgett Curtis ‘62, the latter of whom graduated from Vassar, the Curtis Lecture brings guest speakers to present research surrounding books, manuscripts, or printing.Ron Patkus, Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History, followed the creation of the St. John’s Bible because of his own interest before inviting Jackson to be the 2013 Curtis lecturer. Patkus teaches courses at both the 200- and 300-level that relate to the Bible as a book, and noted that Vassar has a long history of acquiring hand-made Bibles, among which the Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible will be the most recent addition. William Bancroft Hill, the first professor to teach in what was then called Vassar’s Bible Studies department in 1899, managed to obtain several of these Bibles from the Middle Ages. He created what Patkus considers now to be a laboratory for his students.
As the first hand-made Bible in over 500 years, this is a historic work. Beginning with the invention of the printing press in 1450, it became increasingly rare for Bibles to be made by hand. “It’s a long book, so to actually commit to writing the Bible by hand would be a real commitment, and so the invention of printing made it faster,” Patkus explained.
Considering the grand scale of the project, it is notable that Jackson was willing to take it on. “This is a lifetime’s dream for me. I went to art school when I was 13. I’ve always been interested in calligraphy and illumination. I draw, I paint, I do all these things, but the one thing I’ve always wanted to do was the Bible,” Jackson explained in a video promoting the St John’s Bible. Hailing from Wales, Jackson is one of the premier calligraphers in the world, working for important clients that include the Queen of England.
For Jackson, calligraphy and illumination is an art form. “You’re reaching into something in people that they didn’t know was there until they see this thing so that when they open a page of a Bible like this, they take in their breath not because they’re being impressed by the cleverness, or the detail, or even the shining gold, but because of something there that they already know,” he said. “So it’s like meeting somebody that they’ve met before,” he explained. Jackson sees his quill as an extension of himself. He describes it as sensitive and capable of producing an expressive array of strokes that allow him to express what he calls the music inside of him.
Jackson’s dream of creating a hand-made Bible aligned with the desire of St. John’s Abbey to celebrate its sesquicentennial and the Milennium by producing a gift for the world in the tradition of its Benedictine heritage. While it uses many techniques the monks from the Middle Ages would have used to create Bibles, its artistic goals place it in the 21st century. “We call this a Bible for the 21st century because the illuminations speak to and reflect today’s world. Donald Jackson worked with a team of scholars at Saint John’s to decide which verses of the Bible to illuminate and the goal was to make sure it resonates with our world today,” explained Jim Triggs, executive director for the Heritage Edition.
Themes in the Bible include hospitality, transformation and justice for God’s people. Jackson has combined his personal artistic vision with modern motifs to enhance these themes. “Gold, silver and platinum represent the presence of the Divine. Images inspired by photos of deep space by the Hubble telescope depict God’s grandeur. Care for the poor, social justice, the dignity of women and the celebration of artistic traditions from other cultures are also found in the illuminations,” Triggs said. In addition, Jesus is represented through a variety of means, from the concrete to the more abstract, and God’s presence is projected by use of symbols, including that of the rainbow and a gold leaf.
The version of the Bible that Vassar will receive is the Heritage Edition. This edition is adapted from the original by a team of printers and binders and given out to various educational and religious institutions around the world. Various means are taken to ensure accuracy, and techniques are used to imitate effects from the original.
For example, in order to create the illusion of the translucency of the vellum used in the original, a light watermark is inserted onto the cotton pages.
Jackson’s lecture and the acquisition of the Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible fit in well with Vassar’s commitment to encourage individuals to lead purposeful lives. Because of this, Triggs explained, “We are honored that these volumes have found a home on your campus.”