St. John's Abbey & University
in Collegeville, Minnesota

St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota is a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the American Cassinese Congregation. The Abbey was established following the arrival in the area of monks from the Saint Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1856. Saint John's is the second-largest Benedictine abbey in the Western Hemisphere, with 164 professed monks. John Klassen, OSB, currently serves as abbot.

Monks from the Abbey serve parishes in the Diocese of Saint Cloud and in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

The Abbey's Hill Museum and Manuscript Library houses the world's largest collection of manuscript images, and will also house the St. John's Bible, the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible to have been commissioned since the invention of the printing press.

The community operates The Liturgical Press, St. John's University, and St. John's Preparatory School, all located on the grounds of St. John's in Collegeville. The grounds also house the Collegeville Institute of Cultural and Ecumenical Research, the Episcopal House of Prayer (Diocese of Minnesota), a Minnesota Public Radio studio, and the Saint John the Baptist Parish Church. The 2500 acre grounds of the Abbey comprise lakes, prairie, and hardwoods on rolling glacial moraine, and has been designated as a natural arboretum.

The Abbey is the location of a number of structures designed by the modernist architect Marcel Breuer. The Abbey Church with its banner bell tower is one of his most well-known works. -- From Wikipedia

The North Facade and Bell Banner of the Abbey Church

THE BELLS - On the vigil of Christmas, 1989 the present bells were dedicated. These bells replace the original bells that were first installed in the former abbey church in 1897 and moved to this church in 1960. The five bells were produced by Petit & Fritzen bell foundry in Aarle-Rixtel, Holland and purchased through I. T. Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio... The largest bell weighs 8,030 pounds while the smallest bell weighs 1,683 pounds... The bells are dedicated to the Holy Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary, Guardian Angels, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Benedict.

The Abbey Church of Saint John the Baptist

The Abbey Church of Saint John the Baptist is the place of worship for the monastic community of Saint John's Abbey. The monastic community celebrates the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours here each day. In addition, the church is the home of Saint John the Baptist Parish and is the primary place of worship for the Saint John's University community... The Abbey Church is one of the masterpieces of architect Marcel Breuer.

The Heritage Edition is the limited-edition, full-size reproduction of The Saint John’s Bible. The Heritage Edition presents an opportunity for select subscribers to personally experience this extraordinary manuscript. The Saint John’s Bible Web Site

In the 8th Century, near what are now Scotland and England, Benedictine monastic scribes created a Bible that today is one of the longest surviving monumental manuscripts in the Western world... Nearly 1,300 years later, renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson approached the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, with his life-long dream: to create the first handwritten, illuminated bible commissioned since the invention of the printing press. The Saint John’s Bible uses ancient materials and techniques to create a contemporary masterpiece that brings the Word of God to life for the contemporary world.

A Perfect Script - By The Reverend Christopher Calderhead

Donald Jackson assembled a team of skilled scribes to write The Saint John’s Bible. They expected to have an exemplar of the script, a pattern or model they could follow. But there was no exemplar. They arrived at the Scriptorium to find a script in development, a work in flux. This was not just an omission. There was a method in it.

The calligraphers came together in February 2000 in order to form a working team. This visit has been dubbed ‘the Master Class’. Everything else was put to one side as Donald and his scribes studied the script together. The whole process of writing was examined, tested, pulled apart, and put back together again. The script would gel along with the group.

“It’s not a question of copying a shape,” Donald said, “but adopting a shape as your own child—nurturing it—making it your own. It should be open for the scribes to do what they’d hoped they’d do with it.”

The challenge he was setting them was enormous. What was this script he presented to them? It was a complex creation.

Brian Simpson described it. “It was more different from other scripts than I thought. I looked at it at first and said, ‘Oh, it’s a rounded italic.’ But it’s not. It is difficult.” Sue Hufton had a stab at describing it. “It is not conventional. Not roundhand, italic, or foundational. I got myself in a muddle early on with these terms. It’s not even a mixture of these terms. It’s not easily defined. It’s to do with the movement of the pen. It’s rounded, but not a wide round. It’s based on an oval rather than on a circle. The action is similar to round letterforms, and to cursive, italic, whatever.”

This was a script which challenged the easy classification the scribes might have been used to. I asked Sally Mae to describe it: what was the pen angle; what were the proportions?

“It’s not to do with that.” None of the classic calligrapher’s vocabulary applied. “No pen angle, no x-height, no exemplars. At the end of the day, I had to throw all that out the window. You have to trust yourself, and you have trust DJ.” Sue echoed Sally: “I was presented with a script that in a funny kind of way made me set aside everything I knew about letter forms, the relationships between letters—put to one side all my preconceptions about letterforms. And yet, this is the thing—I needed every scrap of knowledge and experience I could draw from.”

The notes for the master class appear alarmingly casual. A block of eighteen lines of Bible script appears at the top of the first page. It is a loose, even casual, version of the script. It is dotted with small annotations. Below this, enlarged letters and parts of letters give evidence of a detailed discussion of the Bible script. These, too, are marked with small checks and xs. This is not an exemplar. It looks like the kind of thing you see on a blackboard in school after a long and complicated lecture. Donald told me he had to stop doing the large demonstration writing; it altered the motion of the pen, so didn’t reflect the subtleties of the writing at the smaller scale of the actual text.

Sue remarked, “I would not have done it this way. This is what I am required to do. But then it becomes my own.” She paused for a moment before correcting herself. “No. It becomes ours.”

The team aspect quickly became important. Sue said, “When we go down there, we feel part of a team, even if we haven’t met all the team members—especially the illuminators. We refine the script together. Donald doesn’t have any one set way. You want security of an exemplar. But it’s good we never had one. The evolution has been allowed to happen.”

Now that they’ve been writing for the better part of two years, Brian said to me, “Two years in, and we’re just beginning to understand the script. It feels better, it looks better.”

Sue agreed. “It amazed me how much we’ve been pushed to our limits. ”Brian said on their last visit to the Scriptorium, “It got quite exciting—we laid our pages all out, like a book—we could see the thing as a whole. It came to life. The weight, texture, appearance of the script all held together. It was all from the same book. Personality is important. It does not stifle personality. It’s a harmony: The individual struggles fade away.”

When they step back from their work, they can enjoy what they have made. I asked him about how the ink sat on the page. “The ink dries well. It’s almost shiny. You can see that it stands just proud on the vellum.” He paused for a moment. “It’s a lovely thing,” he said with a sigh.

copyright 2006, 2007 |