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The Scribe February 2012 Vol. 1, Issue 2
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Making the Word of God Alive on a Page
An Interview with Donald Jackson
The Art of the Saint John's Bible
Donald Jackson
Artistic Director, Illuminator of
The Saint John's Bible

Q: Donald, congratulations on the completion of this monumental journey. As a non-Catholic, was it a challenge working with a Catholic institution? Did you ever feel constrained or restrained, artistically?

No. I always felt encouraged to bring an open and questioning mind, in particular, to the briefs (the exegetical and theological content for the illuminated passages) which of course reflected an essentially Roman Catholic, Benedictine theology and tradition. Raised in the Methodist tradition, I became familiar with the bible stories without being imbued in theological or liturgical orthodoxy. Perhaps I brought innocence (some might say naiveté) to the project. All my questions were unfailingly answered with patience and respect.

Throughout my working life as a freelance artist calligrapher, I have had to interpret and visualize clients' verbal concepts into letterform and associated images. This always involves listening closely to what the client is saying and divining what it is they are really asking for (not always the same thing!) This experience helped me a great deal in working with the Bible's Committee on Illumination and Text. I'd like to think that my final take on an illumination would always contain something of their unspoken wishes. Some of my sketch proposals must have seemed surprising or novel, but they almost always were inspired by what I was 'hearing' on a deeper level than their spoken or written words.

Q: We struggle at times to describe the Heritage Edition of The Saint John's Bible. Terms like "reproduction" and "facsimile" fail to convey the craftsmanship behind these stunning volumes. As the artistic director of both the original manuscript the Heritage Edition, please explain the relationship between the two.

I prefer the words "interpretation" or "transformation." The primary aim of the Heritage Edition is to capture the spirit of the original handwritten vellum pages, faithful to the "truth" of it rather than the surface of it. Even the bespoke paper was chosen not just for its looks but for how it feels to the touch; how its weight matches that of vellum as it turns and falls from the hand; how its surface accepts the printing ink like paint.

Because I have been responsible for both the original manuscript and the Heritage "interpretation," I have been free to decide, for instance, where metal foil stamping will best capture the spirit of the original. In the fifth printed volume, (Historical Books) I discovered that selective hand-sanding of the metal foil helps it blend with the printed images. This is more in keeping with the original gilding process. Ultimately every one of these printed volumes will be unique. Each production stage requires my involvement and each stage requires the skills of expert craftspeople of our printing partners.

Q: When this all began in 1995, did you think The Saint John's Bible would have such wide appeal?

I always knew it would have a life of its own. Now I realize it has many lives. All along, I have believed that if we stayed true to the vision of making the word of God alive on a page, it would speak to everyone, whatever they bring to it.

Q: On the Today Show, Matt Lauer asked you what is next. You took a deep breath, thought for a second and quipped, "Well, my wife thinks retirement is a good idea." You don't seem like the retiring type. What is next?

The Saint John's Bible remains center stage in my creative life. Two volumes in the Heritage Edition series are yet to be art directed and printed (Gospels and Acts followed by Letters and Revelation). Gospels and Acts is the biggest interpretive challenge because of the number of illuminations and the amount of gilding in the original. Letters and Revelation contains a powerful and intensely violent range of color at "full volume." There are many exciting challenges to encounter over the next year.

Ultimately, I realize that being so intensely and emotionally engaged with the Bible over the last 15 years has created in me a certain addiction to that relationship. It has continuously repaid my attention with insights and with increased understanding of the world around us. I doubt it will be possible to "retire" from that relationship now.

See the Bible
Print Exhibitions

College of Mount St. Joseph
Cincinnati, OH
January 17 - February 26, 2012

River Falls Public Library
River Falls, WI
March 24 - April 22, 2012

Touring Exhibitions

New Mexico History Museum
Santa Fe, NM
October 21, 2011 - April 7, 2012