America's Book Of Kells

Handwriting a bible makes no sense in the 21st century. Far easier to pick a computer-generated font, scan the text and electronically transmit it to a printer, who'll turn out thousands of copies in a few days. But the Benedictine monks at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., want to create a work of art, a theological and artistic masterpiece. That's why they've commissioned the first illuminated Bible since the printing press was invented, more than 550 years ago. Working with Welsh artist Donald Jackson, known as "the queen's calligrapher" because he's scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords, St. John's hopes "to make the word of God live on the page--dance on the page--for generations to come," says Brother Dietrich Reinhart, the university's president.

Like The Book of Kells, Dublin's ancient illuminated Gospel, the new Bible will likely draw pilgrims, this time to St. John's pastoral campus, 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The $3 million St. John's Bible (1,150 pages in seven volumes) will reflect its place and time: illuminations will show the flora and fauna of Minnesota and reflect latter-day attitudes on gender, science, interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. "It's wonderfully mad, an imitation of amedieval thing in a high-tech time," says Paul F. Gehl, calligraphy curator at Chicago's Newberry Library.

After two years of intense preparations, actual writing began last week when Jackson, working in his scriptorium, a converted blacksmith shop in Monmouth, Wales, put goose quill to calfskin vellum. St. John's videotaped that first quill stroke for Ash Wednesday viewing on its Web site ( Jackson created the book's layout by designing a special St. John's font, then preparing a computer-generated template for each page, which will be hand-copied by the best calligraphers he can find. He also assembled minerals and precious stones--malachite, lapis lazuli, gold, silver and copper--to pigment the ink and light the illustrations.

Meanwhile, monks at St. John's have been e-mailing theological briefs, as well as ideas for images, including Minnesota-inspired woodlands, canoes and even Viking voyagers. Jackson contributes his own perspective: "I am the first man to write a Bible who knows what the world looks like from 40,000 feet, who has heard of DNA." Those ideas are evident in the page he has designed to open the Book of Matthew. Jackson uses a Jewish menorah as Jesus' family tree and has intertwined DNA chains with Midwestern tree branches. Names appear in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and two women, Hagar and Sarah, are shown with Abraham. Jackson isn't daunted by the prospect of a project that's expected to take six years. "I prepared all my life to do this," he says. "It is my Sistine Chapel." Imagine what Michelangelo could have done with e-mail.