COLLEGEVILLE (AP) -- "I just have two clients, the first is God and the other is the queen," joked British calligrapher Donald Jackson.
Strolling through a gallery at St. John's University, Jackson was surrounded Wednesday with samples of the work he's been doing for God in the two years since the Benedictine school and monastery hired him to hand write and illustrate a complete Bible.
The first such commission in at least 500 years, The Saint John's Bible is a vast $3 million endeavor that has severely cut into the time that Jackson, 63, has for other projects. That's why he's dropped all his other clients except the queen of England, for whom he has produced official documents since 1964. Among them are the marriage documents uniting Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.
The Bible is by far the most ambitious project Jackson -- or any contemporary calligrapher -- has undertaken. It is expected to take about eight years to finish the 1,150-page book, which will be divided into seven volumes.
Calligrapher Donald Jackson explained the process of creating The St. John's Bible at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville. (AP Photos)
The university has already raised $2.4 million toward the project from 320 people, many of them Minnesotans. Contributions have ranged from $50 to $50,000 or more.
"We received a letter from a woman who said she loves the project and wanted to help but she lives on just $700 a month and was wondering if we would take $50 toward it," said Carol A. Marrin, the project's director at St. John's.
At his studio, or "scriptorium," in Wales, Jackson directs a creative team that includes three other calligraphers, an office manager and a trainee who prepares the sheets of specially treated calfskin, called vellum, on which they write. The team has finished the text and some illustrations for the first volume. It contains the first four books of the New Testament -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John -- and the Acts of the Apostles.
Jackson will unveil some of the finished pages at a liturgical ceremony April 20 at the St. John's Abbey Church in Collegeville, about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is also planning a "Bible Project" exhibition scheduled to open in the Twin Cities in October 2003 before traveling to museums throughout the country.
Each page of the Bible is being handwritten, in English, on vellum sheets more than 2 feet tall and about 16 inches wide. The pages are decorated with gold leaf ornaments, colored-ink lettering and illustrations highlighting important incidents.
Although the actual writing is done by hand, Jackson has an electronics whiz lay out each page on a computer. Those sheets are proofread by Bible experts in Atlanta and then sent back to Wales for Jackson and his staff to copy. He also regularly exchanges e-mail messages with theologians at St. John's who must approve all the Bible's illustrations and emphasized passages.
Jackson makes a point of mixing contemporary images into the traditional and historical scenes so that people reading the book perhaps 500 years from now will know where and when it was created.
For example, an illustration for the New Testament story of Pentecost, in which Jesus' followers suddenly began speaking in different languages, includes an impressionistic sketch of an ancient Middle Eastern town and a ghostly image of the St. John's church. Traditional palm trees mingle with a tree from the St. John's campus. And the crowd includes people wearing sunglasses and carnival masks, details inspired by a St. John's football game and a visit to Venice.
"I started with a typical apocalyptic view of the occasion with the Holy Spirit as a shaft of sunlight illuminating the scene and St. Peter and his guys in the background," Jackson said. But as the image evolved, he introduced contemporary elements to reinforce the notion that God's word speaks through the ages. "So I have it coming from the Middle East through the past to now."
Jackson designed a graceful new lettering style especially for the Bible. The calligraphers practice for weeks to learn how to make each letter perfectly, giving just enough weight to a stroke of their goose-quill pens and making sure each letter's curves are identical and their tails the same length.
Jackson supervises the writers to be sure that everyone's writing looks the same, although a trained eye might be able to detect subtle variations.
The work is so demanding that two calligraphers quit after working less than two weeks, Jackson said. The team now includes a professional calligrapher who was an art school classmate of Jackson, and a Methodist minister's wife from southern England.
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