St. John’s Bible lecture recap

The frontispiece for the Gospel of Matthew from the St. John's Bible.  Photo by Mary Elsen.

By Mary Elsen, The Circuit.

Sister Irene Nowell, OSB, shared her story of helping make the vision of the St. John’s Bible a reality during her presentation on March 29.

According to, Nowell has earned a bachelor’s degree in music, a master’s degree in both theology and German and a doctorate in Biblical studies.

“As far as we know, the St. John’s Bible is the first completely hand-calligraphied, hand-illuminated Bible to be produced in the last 500 years,” Nowell said.

The idea sprouted at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota back in 1995 when Donald Jackson, scribe to the queen of England, mentioned his dream to produce a hand-written book of the Gospels, Nowell said.

In 1998, a commission was signed, setting Jackson down the path to directing the production of not only the Gospels, but the entire Bible.

After spending years doing preliminary work, including bringing a team together, choosing passages to illuminate, scripts, ink, paper, quills and creating a computer mock up, ink met paper in February 2000, Nowell said.

“[Jackson] decided to divide the work into seven volumes: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, Gospels and Acts and Letters and Revelation,” she said.

Nowell was asked to join the Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT) while working as an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Nowell said the CIT was comprised of eight members: two Biblical scholars, three artists, a Medievalist, a monastic history scholar and a systematic theologian. Nowell was the Biblical scholar in charge of the Old Testament.

“Our role on the CIT was to take the written word of the Bible, do a mini-exegesis of the passage to be illuminated…and then we just turned it loose to the artists,” she said.

“The idea was not to illustrate the text but to illuminate the text – to generate images that would give new insight into the meaning,” Nowell said.

“We’d call what we were doing Visio Divina,” Nowell said. “We know what Lectio Divina is, and [decided] this is Visio Divina. We’re going to ponder the illuminations [with] the same kind of slow intent we use with Lectio Divina.”

Nowell walked through several illuminations with the audience to demonstrate all the hidden meanings that can be found within the prints.

One thing to recognize is that, in the St. John’s Bible, gold represents God, Nowell said.

Among the thirteen illuminations Nowell guided the audience through was the frontispiece for the Gospel of John. The illumination depicts Jesus all in gold.

Nowell reached back to her first experience seeing the illuminations at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She specifically remembered her thoughts when seeing the frontispiece of the Gospel of John.

“Gold moves because its reflection goes back and forth, so I started down [the aisle at the museum] and it looked like Christ was walking toward me [and] I burst into tears,” Nowell said. “I really love this illumination because of that.”

Nowell pointed out that the figure of Christ is not finished in the illumination “because Christ is not finished.”

“One thing that really stuck out to me with Sister Irene was her idea of Visio Divina,” said junior Danny Orsinger. “At Benedictine everybody’s so used to Lectio [Divina]. Having a picture to meditate on instead of words is a really cool concept.”

“It’s a beautiful way to pray, honestly, taking an image that really uplifts your heart to God,” Orsinger said.

Nowell closed saying, “I would just recommend, as you’re look at the prints, not to try to do a whole lot of them at a time, but just to stand in front of one print and really contemplate ‘what do you see?’”