Mass produced in more than 2,400 languages with some 25 million copies sold annually, the Holy Bible is the best-selling book of all time.
Now Christianity’s Word of God is getting an artistic upgrade, the first and only one of its kind in more than 500 years.
The St. John’s Bible is "a gift to the world in celebration of the 21st century," says Jim Triggs of St. John’s University in Minnesota. Commissioned by the Benedictine Monks there, its purpose is "to create the first handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible since the monks used to do it by hand in the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s, before the printing press came along."
Before the invention of the printing press, illuminated Bibles were handmade, medieval artworks — bathed in color, with sparkling gold and silver, symbolizing the presence of God.
To pen the new version, British scribe Donald Jackson is heading a team of artists using medieval techniques — goose quill pens, calf skin paper, homemade inks, gold leaf and silver leaf.
In a BBC documentary, Jackson described why the art of calligraphy changes the importance of the hand-printed word.
"It's actually about expressing people’s emotions in a world where emotion is kept to a minimum in public life,” he said.
The St. John's artwork is also a testament to a more diverse and knowledgeable culture.
Anthropology tells us that the origins of humans are found in Africa. So in the St. John’s Bible, Adam and Eve are depicted as Africans.
The Wisdom books are represented by an elderly Native American woman. To honor his Jewish heritage, Jesus' genealogy is illustrated with a menorah and the double helix shape of DNA.
And evil is depicted with skeletons from the Holocaust and the remains of the World Trade Center.
“The idea,” says Triggs, “was to create a manuscript the same way that we look back on medieval manuscripts and learn a lot about what was going on with society then. Then this Bible is meant to capture today’s world.”
So rare and valuable is the St. John's Bible that even the Vatican received only a limited-edition replica, the first of the 299 so-called Heritage editions worth an estimated $150,000 per set.
The original, kept at St. John’s University, is valued at roughly $4 million, but it is essentially priceless. The entire seven volumes, each two feet tall and three feet wide, should be completed in 2011.
It’s a long and arduous process, foreign to this age of desktop publishing. But the old way was doomed long ago. After Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in the 15th century, handwritten, illuminated Bibles lost their luster. Only the wealthy could afford them.
"Commissioning such a beautiful manuscript would give you status, and tell everyone how great you are," says Dr. Liana Lupas, curator at the American Bible Society.
That is a core difference between the old and the new. Where once the ancient works of biblical art were produced for the prestige of one man, the St. John's Bible is being called a labor of love created as a gift to mankind.