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K-State Today

March 12, 2012

Heavy reading: Alumni give K-State literary gift to inspire discussion and study

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Saint Johns Bible

Students often cram their books into a backpack and haul them from class to class or they stuff a worn text into a back pocket. However, the latest addition to Kansas State University's Hale Library has no chance of squeezing into either.

Volumes of the Heritage Edition of the Saint John's Bible are on display in the special collections department of Hale Library. The Heritage Edition is a reproduction of the original 1998 Saint John's Bible manuscript, which was the first illuminated text of its kind to be commissioned in 500 years.

Each volume measures 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide when open and weighs up to 120 pounds. This historical work traveled to the university thanks to a generous donation from Warren and Mary Lynn Staley, K-State alumni from Edina, Minn.

The Staleys live near St. John's University, where the original Saint John's Bible was commissioned in 1998.

The couple, after discovering that the calligraphers for the handwritten 1998 Bible used ancient methods and tools while incorporating artistic references to today's world, decided to invest in a Heritage Edition. This edition will be a reproduction of the original 1998 Bible.

"It is a masterpiece of art reproduced using the latest worldwide innovations of printing technology," the Staleys said. "Kansas State University is the educational heart of our lives as well as the country, so we wished to enable this text to be in the center of conversations. It was too special to keep for ourselves. The wonderful educational outcomes the Heritage Edition will produce are what breathes life into education."

The original 1998 Saint John's Bible manuscript was the first illuminated -- meaning gilded detailing -- and handwritten text of this kind to be commissioned in 500 years -- the first since the invention of the printing press. Each page of the original took up to 12 hours to complete. Fewer than 300 illuminated copies of the Heritage Edition are being produced and each copy is digitally scanned to retain the attention to detail.

"The artwork and detail of this rare reproduction must be seen for oneself," said Lori Goetsch, dean of K-State Libraries. "The commitment that went into making it is obvious. It's a true labor of love."

In the original Saint John's Bible, the shadow of the text from the page behind it was visible. In reproduction, the pages were digitally shadowed to keep the effect. It was this appreciation for aesthetic detail that eventually landed the Saint John's Bible at Kansas State University. The Staleys saw the original Bible at St. John's University and were so impressed they purchased a reproduction, then decided to donate it to the university.

"The Staleys gave this gift not just to K-State, but to the community," Goetsch said. "We hope this vital piece of art and history is an academic and cultural resource at Kansas State University that inspires thought-provoking discussions in a comfortable environment with peers and professors. We appreciate the Staleys' commitment to learning at Kansas State University through this generous gift."

While not all seven volumes have been produced, Hale currently holds four completed volumes: the Pentateuch, Wisdom Books, Psalms and Prophets volumes. They are available to students, faculty and community groups to borrow and use in their own displays.

"It's relevant to those interested in art, history and even philosophy," Goetsch said. "This is our connection to an illuminated manuscript. It represents history."

The art and symbolism in the manuscript also are sprinkled with historical imagery, such as art depicting the Holocaust and satellite images of Earth.

Many professors hope to build on this learning opportunity, including Tonnie Martinez, assistant professor of secondary education. She plans to use the historical work in her Foundations of Education course as a bridge from her students' digital world to a reproduction of a document that has been completely rewritten and illustrated by hand. She also hopes to apply the Saint John's Bible to the course's goal of examining what influences U.S. education.

"The Saint John's Bible has images of mankind's accomplishments throughout the last 500 years," Martinez said. "We are able to trace parallels from U.S. historical events and images to the foundations of education."

Greg Eiselein, professor of English, also wants to use the Saint John's Bible to get students excited about studying texts more carefully and intensely. He plans to use the volumes as an opportunity for discussion in both his Great Books and The Bible courses.

"I'm hoping this is an opportunity to discuss the history of the Bible's formation -- how it was produced, transmitted, canonized, translated and circulated," Eiselein said. "I plan to treat the Saint John's Bible as both a work of art and as an interpretation of the Bible. I want students to understand how the calligraphy and illustration are ways of interpreting and understanding what biblical texts say."

To commemorate the Staleys' gift of the Saint John's Bible, the Rev. Eric Hollas, senior associate for arts and cultural affairs at Saint John's University, will speak at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, in the Hemisphere Room at Hale Library. Hollas will discuss the tradition of the illuminated manuscript. The Saint John's Bible will be on display and a reception for the Staleys will follow. The public is invited to attend.

For more information, watch a video:

Facts about the Saint John's Bible

• The Saint John's Bible was commissioned by St. John's Abbey and University and was executed by Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's Crown Office, along with a team of artists and scribes.

• The script used in the original Saint John's Bible was designed by Jackson to be readable, modern and dignified. Because six individual scribes worked on the project, subtle differences can be seen in the final script.

• All 73 books from the Old and New Testaments will be presented in seven volumes of approximately 1,150 pages in the New Revised Standard Version.

• The original text was made using traditional materials like calfskin vellum, ancient inks, platinum and gold, and silver leaf. It was written with quill pens made from goose, turkey and swan feathers. Each page took up to 12 hours to create.

• Only the largest feathers are used in making the quill pens. For right-handed scribes, the most desirable flight feathers are the first three from a mature bird's left wing. Their shape naturally fits the curve of the scribe's hand.

• The first Heritage Edition was presented to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in April 2008. Upon seeing it, he deemed the manuscript "a great work of art for eternity."

• Illustrations within the Heritage Edition feature both historical and contemporary images, including satellite images of earth.

• To err is human, but to redo eight hours of calligraphy is a nightmare. To fix errors on a page in the original Saint John's Bible, the creators would employ several tricks disguised as art, like an illustration of a bird carrying the forgotten words to the space in which they belonged.