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Published Date: June 5, 2005

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Women Illuminating the Word

When Minneapolis-based calligrapher and graphic designer Diane von Arx Anderson was invited to work on The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten illuminated Bible in 500 years, it did not ever cross her mind to refuse.

“As a calligrapher in the 21st century, [it] was like being asked to work on the Book of Kells,” she said, referring to the renowned handwritten Bible created in Ireland around A.D. 800. “I am an active participant in my church…so it was very meaningful for me. This is something that will live for a long time…and to be invited to work on a project that has that amount of significance is a very good feeling. It’s something I couldn’t possibly have said ‘no’ to.”

Von Arx is one of the team of calligraphers and illuminators—those who adorn the pages with images, ornamental designs, or decorative lettering—who are working on the monumental task of transcribing and illustrating the entire Bible by hand. Estimated to take about nine years and to cost over four million dollars, the project was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It is headed by artistic director Donald Jackson, one of the world’s best-known calligraphers and the scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office.

The intention is that the Bible be “contemporary, ecumenical, multicultural, and prophetic.” To that end, a group of eight theologians, artists, and art historians called the Committee on Illumination and Text inform and shape the work by providing biblical, cultural, and historical information about each passage represented in the Bible’s 160 illuminations. The completed Bible will include seven volumes that are each two feet tall and almost three feet wide when opened, with a total of 1,150 pages.

The Saint John’s Bible, which is scheduled to be finished in 2007, is called an “illuminated” manuscript, a term that draws attention to the dazzling gold leaf and brilliant colored inks used in its creation. The phrase may also originate from the Middle Ages, when candles provided the only light in dark cathedrals. When the candlelight reflected off the gold and inks on the page, it looked like the light was coming from within the text.

In this present-day Bible, more than just the terminology is medieval. The materials and process borrow from ancient techniques: the scribes write using hand-cured goose quill pens, ground pigment inks, and calfskin vellum pages. They also use gold leaf in the images, applying it over gesso—a mixture of plaster, fish glue, white lead, and sugar. The existence of ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Kells suggests that by using these materials, the Bible will last over 1,000 years.

At the same time, however, the Bible is remarkably contemporary, especially in the illuminations. While occasional images draw on the iconographic tradition, others include satellite images of earth from space, depictions of DNA strands, visual mapping of voices, and even a representation of New York City’s Twin Towers. In a 2002 article published in Scribe magazine, Donald Jackson also notes the Saint John’s team’s “obviously genuine wish to emphasize, where appropriate, the part played by women and the under-privileged in the Bible stories (not something we would have seen in the Middle Ages).”

The Bible is modern in other ways, too. Unlike previous handwritten Bibles, which were written in Latin, this Bible is written in English using the New Revised Standard Version, a gender-accurate translation that is widely used by both Catholics and Protestants. Instead of working side-by-side in monastic communities, most of the contemporary scribes work out of their own studios in Wales, England, and the United States. And, perhaps most notably, since no previous models exist of an English handwritten Bible, the layout of each page is determined on a computer to allow several scribes, in different parts of the world, to work on different pages at the same time.

The Word in Process

Diane von Arx works on her pages of the Bible from her Minneapolis studio—a location she describes as fortunate, because she can see the pages of the Bible frequently. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently completed an exhibition of the Bible, and completed volumes are stored at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s Abbey and University just an hour away.

Over the last year, von Arx has worked as an illuminator for the Wisdom Books volume of the Bible. She has been assigned four “special treatments”—illuminations that she describes in Jackson’s words as “turning up the volume on the quote.” Similar to pull-out quotes in a magazine, von Arx’s special treatments call attention to the text of particular biblical and apocryphal passages: Job 19:25, Ecclesiastes 11:1, Sirach 6:14–22, and Sirach 39:13–15.

While von Arx’s career as a calligrapher and illuminator is now firmly established, she did not anticipate this possibility for herself after completing her formal education as a commercial artist. Looking back, however, she realizes that she “always gravitated toward letters.” She remembers getting her first taste of lettering when working on bulletin boards for the nuns at her Catholic high school, in which she copied script out of a Speedball calligraphy book.

After starting in a career of commercial art and graphic design, she began to take classes in calligraphy, in which she and her instructor discovered she had a gift. This led to teaching opportunities and further classes and workshops with world-renowned type designers and calligraphers, including Donald Jackson, who became a colleague and friend.

Because of her affiliation with Jackson and her personal ties to Saint John’s, von Arx was aware of The Saint John’s Bible project almost from its inception. This awareness influenced her first impressions. “My perspective was different…because I’m from Minnesota and I take that Bible personally,” said von Arx. “It’s mine, it’s Saint John’s. I know their commitment and I know their vision, so it wasn’t surprising. And because I knew Donald I thought, ‘Who else would do it?’ He’s extremely intelligent, he’s sensitive, and he’s so gifted. I can’t imagine that anyone else could handle the project.”

Early in the project’s development, Jackson mentioned to von Arx the possibility of her working on the Bible, and then he officially invited her to join the team in June 2004. To von Arx, this invitation to be part of the elite team working on such a project represented a significant honor.

“It’s a most amazing project to be done in the 21st century,” said von Arx. “It was kind of dessert that [the job] was a Bible—something that I believe in and question at the same time.”

The collaborative nature of the project posed particular challenges to von Arx, who worked in her Minneapolis studio while corresponding with Jackson in his Welsh scriptorium. She believes she was chosen for the project in part because of her ability to take direction and work as part of a team when many artists prefer to work on their own. However, she pointed out that the geographic distance made teamwork difficult at times: “When you’re working across the water,” she said, “You can’t ask your boss, ‘Am I going in the right direction?’”

At the same time, von Arx found the collaboration extremely rewarding. After sketching out layouts of the pieces by herself, she would scan or digitally photograph her work and send it to Jackson for feedback. “He has his eye on the big forest and he knows how this little tree of mine will relate,” said Von Arx. “He would say, ‘You might try a different style on this letter,’ but he was very careful not to dictate what should happen. He was very encouraging and always had a good word to say.…It was an apprenticeship for me.”

To complete the four special treatments, von Arx logged 200 hours—a length of time that may surprise those unfamiliar with the process. But she acknowledges that the entire project moves slowly, often due to the care the project members take to apply the medieval methods. As an example, she cites the vellum: before the calfskin can be used, it must be scraped, cleaned, sanded, dried, and then evaluated to see if its texture, color, and translucency make it suitable for The Saint John’s Bible. Von Arx hand-stretched the vellum pages herself before working on them and cured her own quill pens.

The extra effort paid rich dividends. Von Arx cited as one of her joys “when the gouache falls off the quill and…it looks lovely.” She added, “I have such respect for the tools. Only a quill can do that. No matter how good you are, no matter how well you know those letters, the quill and vellum will make the best and finest letters.”

In spite of her confidence in the materials, von Arx found herself immobilized with fear when the time came to actually put quill to vellum. “I was paralyzed, and I just had to get past that,” she said. “I had to think, ‘This is just a piece of vellum.…The worst that could happen is that this whole leaf just has to be redone, and that will not be the end of the world.’…It was quite a struggle.”

And von Arx did make mistakes. Partway through the process, she joked to friends, “‘I am getting really good at scraping [pigment off] vellum and sanding.’” She notes that one time she had to scrape her work off three times and start over again. “It’s very frustrating,” she said, “but you just do it because it’s a good cause and because God’s the client.”

The Word Made Public

Longtime CBE member and volunteer Marilyn Cramolini has an intimate relationship with The Saint John’s Bible for another reason: she serves as a docent, or tour guide, at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the Bible was first unveiled to the public in the exhibition “Illuminating the Word” from April 10 to July 3, 2005.

When Cramolini first saw the 100 pages that were exhibited at the museum, she was overwhelmed. She thought, “If I weren’t a Christian, I would be from seeing these pages.”
As part of her training for the exhibition, Cramolini experienced a lecture by a Saint John’s monk who discussed the monastic community’s motivation for commissioning such a project. The monk stated that they desired to reacquaint people with the Bible.
To Cramolini, a Bible major in college, the monk’s stated intention was also dear to her heart. During tours, she said she “tried to stress what the monks thought was important—God’s word.”

Cramolini also appreciated the opportunity to emphasize aspects of the Bible that affect women viewers. For example, she appreciated that they chose the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is a gender-accurate translation. “That pleased me a whole lot,” said Cramolini. “I pointed that out constantly—that it was gender-friendly to women.”

Cramolini also enjoyed drawing attention to illuminations that brought about an audience response, several of which involved biblical women. For example, in the illumination of Mary and Martha from Luke 15, Mary sits high on a stool, listening to Jesus, while Martha stands impatiently with her hands on her hips. Cramolini pointed out that women are often the workers, like Martha—a concept with which the women viewers identified strongly.

Another image that brought about strong responses was that of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In the illumination, one of the Pharisees grasps the Hebrew word “adultery” in order to hurl it at the woman, attempting to wound her with his accusations of her sin. Because the word crosses the boundary of the image’s frame, Cramolini points out that it communicates a message to the viewers as well: that we are all sinners, and that we all participate in judging others, which Cramolini said always caught the audience’s attention.

The Word Made Personal

This deep audience connection with the Bible made the exhibition special for Cramolini. “There were some that just couldn’t learn enough,” she said. “They were just bringing it to their souls. They were so dedicated to learning, they just couldn’t stand it if they didn’t.”
The personal responses to the Bible also moved Diane von Arx. As she walked through the exhibit, she enjoyed silently listening to the comments of others who were unaware that they were standing next to one of the Bible’s illuminators.

“I just find it amazing that everybody looks for something different,” said von Arx. “Everybody can relate to something in it. People should be putting themselves into this, because it’s a contemporary Bible.”

The interpretive aspect of the Bible is also an interesting issue for Kim Haines-Eitzen, Associate Professor of Early Christianity at Cornell University. “As a historian of early Christianity, what I find most fascinating is the way in which these texts have been appropriated and read and interpreted in different contexts,” she said. “This is not an attempt to redo the medieval illuminations; it’s very much an interpretive approach that says something about the modern world and about their own context and their own interests. It speaks to the vitality of the religious tradition.…”

Von Arx hopes that in the case of The Saint John’s Bible the contemporary interpretations will speak to its viewers in a profound way. “When people see how these were interpreted—written so many years ago, but interpreted in a modern way—I would think and hope that it would inspire people to stop and think about what we really need and what we really want,” she said. “We’re smeared every day with things that are not important. I hope…that it is the impetus for people to go back to the
written Word.”

More information about The Saint John’s Bible is available at

“Trained in Beautiful Writing”: Women Scribes in History

As commissioner of The Saint John’s Bible project, Saint John’s Abbey often emphasizes the link between the project and the monastic tradition of copying and preserving religious manuscripts—a history that would seem to make Diane von Arx, who is a contemporary woman illuminator of the Bible, an anomaly.

But according to Kim Haines-Eitzen, Associate Professor of Early Christianity at Cornell University, the historical data suggests a more complex and diverse heritage. Her work has unearthed evidence suggesting that female scribes may have transcribed some of the earliest Christian manuscripts.

Since Haines-Eitzen’s area of expertise is pre-fourth century Christianity, she acknowledges that scholars have little direct evidence from the period—for scribes of either gender. But, by focusing on the physical features of manuscripts of the New Testament and other early Christian texts, she has discovered some intriguing evidence for female scribes.

One important finding is a passage from Eusebius, a church historian and theologian who lived circa A.D. 270–340, in which he lists the categories of copyists who worked for Origen, a Greek philosopher and theologian—a list that includes “girls trained in beautiful writing.” Haines-Eitzen points out that Eusebius mentioned these female calligraphers in passing, without drawing attention to them as unusual or unique. She also notes that other references and visual evidence from the period mention or depict female scribes doing work as bookkeepers, notaries, secretaries, and copyists of literature.

From this data, little can be assumed statistically about proportions of women scribes to men, although Haines-Eitzen states, “Certainly female scribes were less common.” She also notes that the gender of a scribe cannot be determined on the basis of his or her handwriting. She jokes that female scribes did not “dot their i’s with hearts on top—women were trained in the same way that men were trained.”

Before monasteries and convents became institutionalized in the fourth century, Christian texts were copied informally, according to Haines-Eitzen, which contributed to the diversity of scribes. “The image that we have in our heads of a room full of monks transcribing the New Testament or Old Testament texts…simply doesn’t exist in the second century,” she says.

Haines-Eitzen adds that religious texts came about in a variety of ways—perhaps at the request of a congregation or a wealthy householder. They also were impacted by cultural and economic forces; Haines-Eitzen suggests that urban centers would likely have had more copies of manuscripts than rural communities, which probably had few texts or people who could read them.

In the fourth century and following, Haines-Eitzen cites clearer and more explicit evidence for women copying texts, including the Bible. She links this change to the establishment of monasteries and convents in that period, which included scriptoria—rooms set aside for copying and illuminating religious texts.

For example, a biography of Melania the Younger (circa A.D. 383–439) mentions her copying the Old and New Testaments in her monastery and providing them to others. A later account of Caesaria the Younger also mentions her teaching monastic women to copy the biblical texts. “Clearly you’ve got examples of female scribes in these monasteries,” says Haines-Eitzen.

But why does it matter that women were scribes? In a 1998 article published in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Haines-Eitzen explained the significance of the research: “Scribes and copyists…played an integral role in the (re)production and (re)creation of ancient texts. Attention to the ancient representation of women as scribes restores…an aspect of the history of women that has all too often been overlooked, and a facet to the identity and role of ancient scribes and copyists.”