Our show for this week — called “Preserving Words and Worlds” — focuses on the pioneering and valiant efforts of manuscript preservation being spearheaded by the Benedictine monks of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey & University. The importance of the words and language of these precious handwritten texts is vital to understanding other civilizations and cultures, as Fr. Columba Stewart and Getatchew Haile point out.
But, these two scholars speak as much about the importance of the container itself. The vessel gives context to the manuscript, and to the people producing and using these texts. Elements like the type of paper used, the binding, the style of calligraphy, the marginalia, the general wear-and-tear all indicate how it was used, who used it, and, in essence, its innate value to those people using it and their ancestors.
When I think about it this way, I better understand why the same institution also commissioned a multi-million dollar project to create the first handwritten Bible since the printing press was invented. It’s what they did in medieval times and that monastic legacy is being carried on today, albeit with the expedience of modern technology and communication.
Artistic efforts like these I find true and sincere, not a fancy facade masking an ordinary box. Hearkening to ancient traditions and materials, this illuminated Bible incorporates hand-ground inks and eggs and feathers and vellum with platinum, gold, and silver foils. And, being a project of the modern era, it uses computers and sophisticated software programs and broadband connection to lay out the book and communicate with a host of overseers in making everything’s correct.
This short video about the St. John’s Bible project is instructive, to be sure, but it also gives me insight into the magic of creating a manuscript — and the monumental task of coordinating it.