Thus, It Is Written: The Saint Johns Bible Reaches its Final Word


On Oct. 23, the History Museum opens its doors to an exhibit that celebrates an epic achievement in the book arts. Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible features 44 pages from the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery.

Detail from Letter to the Seven Churches with the Heavenly Choir, Donald Jackson, 2011. The Saint John's Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

You can find out more about our exhibit here. But for now, we’d like to send out heartiest congratulations to Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., along with Donald Jackson and his team of scribes and calligraphers. On Thursday, the abbey announced that 15 years of transatlantic work had been completed, with the word “Amen” having been written on the final page of the seventh and final volume of the Bible, Letters and Revelation.

(That volume goes on exhibit today through Nov. 13 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.)

From the official press release:

“Today we celebrate the culmination of a fifteen year commitment to revive a monastic tradition in the modern world and create a work of art that will ignite the spiritual imagination of the world,” said Abbot John Klassen, OSB, Saint John’s Abbey. “We also celebrate the beginning of The Saint John’s Bible’s journey to inspire people from all backgrounds through the many ways they can experience the project, beginning with this exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.” …

The Saint John’s Bible is a fifteen year collaboration of scripture scholars and theologians at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota with a team of artists and calligraphers at the scriptorium in Wales, United Kingdom under the direction of Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords. Written and drawn entirely by hand using quills and paints hand-ground from precious minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, silver, and 24-karat gold, The Saint John’s Bible celebrates the tradition of medieval manuscripts while embracing 21st century technology to facilitate the design process and collaboration between Saint John’s in Collegeville and the scriptorium in Wales.

“Now that I have inscribed the final Amen, I realise that over the long years of this task, a boyhood dream, I have gradually absorbed an enduring conviction of the pin-sharp relevance of these ancient Biblical Texts to the past, present and the future of our personal and public life and experience,” said Jackson. “These texts have a life of their own and their life is a mirror of the human spirit and experience.”

The Saint John’s Bible illustrates scripture from a modern perspective, reflecting a multicultural world and humanity’s enormous strides in science, technology and space travel, as well as recent wars and genocide. “Illuminated manuscripts have always marked the time and place in which they were created, and The Saint John’s Bible will reflect our world at the beginning of the twenty-first century for future generations,” said Fr. Robert Koopmann, OSB, President of Saint John’s University. “The illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible provide a new way for people to see and experience scripture, which is a particularly exciting in our increasingly visual culture.”

(BTW: Donald Jackson, at left, will be in the house at the Lensic Peforming Arts Center on Nov. 7 for a 6 pm lecture. Tickets cost  $15. A $50 private reception with Jackson follows. Tickets at, or call 505-982-1234.)

With his fellow scribes and illuminators at a to-die-for scriptorium in Wales, Jackson carried out the monks’ request for a monumental Bible. When opened, it will measure 2′ tall by 3′ wide, with its nearly 1,150 pages bound into seven volumes. Saint John’s Abbey and University are dedicated to ecumenism, and the text, translation and imagery in The Saint John’s Bible reflect this commitment. Theologians and scholars at Saint John’s University selected the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as the translation for The Saint John’s Bible. Though each letter is rendered by hand, The Saint John’s Bible uses state-of-the-art computer technology to create and manage page layouts as well as employing contemporary scripts and illumination.

Illuminating the Word will share its exhibit space and spirit with Contemplative Landscape, which uses archival and contemporary black-and-white photography to reveal how people have responded to New Mexico’s art, architecture, land and sacred rituals.


From Mexico City to Santa Fe: How the Camino Real Changed the Santeros’ Craft

Earlier this year, History Museum Director Frances Levine and Josef Diaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Art and History Collections, were in Mexico City, talking to officials at the Museo Franz Mayer about their museum possibly exhibiting some of the retablos and bultos from our Treasures of Devotion/Tesoros de Devoción exhibition. At one point, Director Héctor Rivero Borrell brought out a few retablos he had recently purchased for the Franz Mayer.

“He asked what we thought of them,” Diaz recalls. “They were very similar to New Mexican pieces but were not New Mexican. I could tell they were not made in New Mexico.”

At that moment, the seed of a future exhibition took root.

In a grand partnership resembling the mash-up of three U.S. museums and a Spanish museum behind last year’s exhibition, The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States, the History Museum is now partnering with the Franz Mayer, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, and the San Antonio (Texas) Museum of Art for yet another bi-national exhibition. We recently received a $23,000 convening grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago to lay the groundwork for a collaborative exhibition on the art of santos, one of the most definining art forms of this region.

(Santos are carved and painted images of saints. Santeros are the people who create them. Santos include bultos, three-dimensional figures, like the one above, and retablos, two-dimensional pieces painted on wood, like the one below. Both of these santos are from Treasures of Devotion.)

Images of saints that are manufactured like this are often treated like stepchildren in Mexico because they’re not done in the academic tradition,” Diaz said. “They’re a little naive in how they’re painted.”

When he and Levine saw the Franz Mayer pieces, Diaz recalls, “We thought maybe they were produced along the Camino Real corridor, outside of the academic center, where they didn’t have the formal schools but were aware of the academic training. Maybe they were a prelude to what was being made in New Mexico along the corridor.”

With the grant, the museums are looking at the larger picture of the art of santos and may revise historical interpretations of the  tradition from the mid-18th century to the first quarter of the 20th century in New Mexico, using works from the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, other museums and private collections.

The plan is to mount an exhibit that will illustrate how the art form developed as it moved beyond the academic center of Mexico City into the colonial “wilds” of northern New Spain. Were different native materials used? Did the long distance and relative isolation affect santeros’ artistic interpretations? By  juxtaposing Mexican and New Mexican devotional pieces, organizers hope to emphasize their connections in terms of style and religious conviction.

“Maybe these Mexican pieces can fill in the scholarly gap between Mexico City’s and northern New Mexico’s styles,” Diaz said. “We know that there was a strong artistic connection along the Camino Real, and this makes me think that these pieces are predecessors to what was eventually made in New Mexico.”

Anyone who’s visited Santa Fe during Spanish Market knows that this artistic tradition is still a vibrant part of the lives of Hispanic communities in New Mexico. To emphasize that, the exhibition will include a sampling of modern works.

The exhibit is anticipated to run from 2015 through 2016. It will first travel to Mexico City, then San Antonio, and finally to the Palace of the Governors.

In July, museum directors and scholars from Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico gathered at the History Museum to begin their planning. Attendees brought their expertise on santos and Mexican religious craftsmanship. The group visited the Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and Museum of International Folk Art to begin assembling a collection for the exhibit. They also discussed conceptual material and a research plan to move the project forward.

Next step? The group reconvenes in Mexico City in October.


The Officially Unofficial Kind of Illegal 47-Star Flag Comes in for Repairs

On April 4, 1818, Congress enacted the Flag Act of 1818, setting forth a rule that no new stars could be added to the flag until the Fourth of July immediately following a state’s admission to the Union. Thanks to that once-a-year-and-only-once-a-year mandate, New Mexicans hoping to share their pride at becoming the 47th state were essentially forced into committing their first illegal acts as U.S. citizens.

And flag manufacturers, only too happy to supply the demand, made their day by stitching together 47-star flags in willful disobeyance of that 1818 law.

In celebration of New Mexico’s centennial, the History Museum will commemorate that dip into the dark side with 47 Stars, an exhibit of the officially unofficial 47-star flag. (Actually three of them, shown in rotation to reduce the strains of being on display.) From January 6 through November 25, 2012, the flags will join a collection of long-term exhibits about statehood and a tongue-in-cheek front-window installation marking our entrance into the Union.

Here’s the news nugget: This week, Rebecca Tinkham Hewett, part of the crackerjack conservation team for the Museums of New Mexico, began prepping the smallest of the three flags for display.

She started by pinning it to an acid-free board covered with fabric and will next stitch it to the fabric around the flag’s edge and in a network pattern within it to ensure it doesn’t sag when the board is hoisted to a wall in the museum’s Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now exhibition. The statehood section within that exhibit already includes:

·        Audio re-enactments of arguments for and against New Mexico’s entry into the Union, produced by aural historian Jack Loeffler.

·        A photo of the 1910 Constitutional Convention.

·        President Taft’s proclamation of statehood and the pen he used to sign it.

·        The top hat worn by William McDonald to his inauguration as New Mexico’s first governor.

What makes the flags officially unofficial? Just 39 days after New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912, Arizona stepped up to the statehood plate on February 14, 1912. By virtue of coming in second, Arizona would receive its just due on July 4, when the official flag of the United States was to switch from 46 to 48 stars. In the meantime, patriotic New Mexicans wanted a flag of their own , and eager U.S. flag manufacturers came up with the unofficial 47-star flag.

How the three flags ended up in the museum’s hands involves a whole lot of out-of-state miles. The 34½-by-72¼” flag Tinkham Hewett is working on was delivered to the museum in 2001 by a Mrs. James Hetzler, office manager of a church in St. Louis. While cleaning out a closet, she found the flag and figured it was left by a since-disbanded Boy Scout troop. The medium-sized, 43½-by-93½” flag was donated by a Fredrich Liberet in 1988, who said it had been passed down by his great-great-grandfather. And the largest, 65-by-115¾” flag arrived in 2000 from a woman who said it had belonged to her father in Drexel City, Penn.

Made of a plain-weave wool, the small flag is missing a few stars on the side visitors won’t see. On the side they will, a few of the stars show slight stains. Tinkham Hewett isn’t certain what made the stains, but said she won’t take pains to remove them.

“It’s earned these stains,” she said. “It’s part of the evidence to a life an object has had. To remove them takes away that evidence, part of its history.”

Come Jan. 6, Tinkham Hewett’s careful work will come to fruition, helping the museum bring the centennial to life.

“Conservation concerns have kept us from bringing our 47-star flags out of collections for public view,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “But the Centennial was too good of an opportunity to pass up. By letting visitors see these artifacts in specially designed display cases, we hope they’ll become engaged in the amazing story of New Mexico’s struggle for statehood.”