May 2011 issue of The Saint John's Bible eNewsletter. Are images missing? View the online version.
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The Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara, spoke in a recent interview of a scientist who had written that "the existence of music is an intellectual scandal." "With that he meant," Rautavaara explained, "that there is a message in music, and yet there are no words for that message. It's from another world. For a scientist that is a scandal. For me, it's a wonderful thing."

In this month’s newsletter Sr. Irene Nowell talks about what a revelation her work on the Committee on Illumination and Text turned out to be when she saw how the structure and exegesis of a text began to take artistic form, not to seek its own ends, but allowing the art to realize a message in and of the words that the reader, even the scholar, might not have imagined.

Standing in the Right Place at the Right Time
Irene Nowell, OSB

When Michael Patella, OSB, asked me in the summer of 1999 to join the Committee on Illumination and Text for The Saint John's Bible, I had two reactions: first, I don't know anything about art; second, do I need more meetings. Now, more than a decade later, it remains true that I am a beginner in discerning the subtleties of art. But the surprise was that, yes! I did need more meetings! As time went on it became clear that Father Michael's request would lead to one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life. The first joy was the meetings. Truly! Each one was a kind of shared lectio. After the biblical person (I for Old Testament, Father Michael for New Testament) gave a brief exegesis of the passage, the artists would begin to imagine how it might be illuminated. This was a revelation to me. For example, I said that the Book of Judges was constructed on a constantly repeated pattern of sin and rescue. Alan Reed, OSB, suggested that a chain, broken over and over, might appear at the top of each page. Donald Jackson later took that idea and created a theme with a patterned swatch of fabric that appears in each illumination, suggesting both chaos and order. Grand!

Death of Abimelech, Donald Jackson 2010, The Saint John’s Bible

I had the lead on the exegesis of the Book of Psalms. We knew we wanted something different from the medieval illuminations of Psalms, but we were stumped on what that might be. Finally I made a study of the whole Psalter and the tone of its five separate books. Donald picked that up and created what I could never have imagined. In addition he captured the insight that the Psalms are a living prayer with the voice prints of the monks' chant flowing through every page.

I first saw the illuminations for the Book of Psalms "live" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I was so moved by their beauty and meaning that I was close to tears. Then, as I turned to go toward the hall where the illuminations for Gospels and Acts were displayed, I saw the frontispiece of the Gospel of John at the end of a short corridor. In that illumination Christ is completely in gold and is striding out of space, the Word becoming flesh. Gold, because it reflects light, moves as we move toward it. It seemed that Christ was walking down that corridor right toward me. That experience brought the real tears.

The Word Made Flesh, Donald Jackson 2002, The Saint John’s Bible

Now I give reflection days and retreats, using the illuminations, and they never fail to inspire the participants. I am also delighted to be writing the text for Seeing the Word, the lectio divina project using the illuminations. I have blessed the day that Father Michael asked me to join the CIT. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to be a part of this incredible project. I only hope that everyone has the opportunity to experience these inspiring illuminations.

In This Issue

• Irene Nowell, OSB

• Upcoming Exhibitions & Events

See the Bible

Print Exhibitions

John Brown University
Siloam Springs, AR
March 31 - May 1, 2011

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Des Moines, IA
April 1 - April 30, 2011

St. Andrew United Methodist Church
Highlands Ranch, CO
May 24 - June 28, 2011

Museum of Biblical History
Collierville, TN
May 31 - July 30, 2011

Find a gallery near you >

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