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Beauty Already Has Saved the World

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Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation at “Illuminating the Incarnation: A Musical Meditation on The Saint John’s Bible,” a multi-disciplinary concert sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, directed by Carmen-Helena Téllez of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, and performed on September 24, 2017 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.

St. Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with an exhortation:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

This is what we come here today to do: to place ourselves in the presence of something lovely, something excellent, something beautiful. Yet, this afternoon’s concert is not something that is merely meant to entertain us. This afternoon’s concert, like all great art, is something that is meant to transform us. We’ve come here to experience the beauty of Scripture in all of its truth, purity, loveliness, graciousness; we’ve come to see and hear the beauty of Scripture as it is brought to life through music and dance and visual art—the art of The Saint John’s Bible. And as we place ourselves in the presence of this beauty, we are opening ourselves up to encountering something—someone.

As we gaze upon this scriptural art, as we hear the words of Scripture proclaimed and sung in simple unison and complicated harmony, as we watch the stories of Scripture be interpreted and embodied through dance, we open ourselves up to encountering the One of whom all of Scripture speaks: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.

Yes: All of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments, reveal Christ to us as the culmination of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. And in The Saint John’s Bible, we see the words of Scripture written and illuminated in a beauty that can perhaps be described as “ever ancient and ever new,” to borrow the phrase from St. Augustine. The artistic techniques used in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible are rooted in a centuries-old tradition of writing and illuminating the Word of God, and yet its artistic language is rooted in the twenty-first century imagination, incorporating styles that range from traditional iconography to abstract and minimalist art, featuring images that draw their inspiration from the latest scientific and anthropological research and even from the events of modern life itself.

This juxtaposition—using ancient techniques to express the modern imagination—beckons us to see our lives, our stories as they unfold today, in the light of the story of salvation. This beautiful work of scriptural art, this beauty ever ancient and ever new, invites us to encounter Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in a way that is utterly new—in a way that will broaden our horizons and stretch our imaginations, in a way that will challenge us to forget what we think we know about Scripture and encounter this narrative of God’s love for us as though we were hearing it for the first time.

How can this art accomplish all of this? Because it is incarnational art, using the stuff of the visible, temporal world to attract our eyes and attune them to the invisible, eternal Word.

So what is the stuff of the visible, material world that was used to make The Saint John’s Bible? In keeping with the beauty ever ancient, it’s the same stuff that monks were using centuries ago in the age before the printing press, when getting a copy of a book meant making a copy of that book by writing it out yourself. Before the advent of moveable type face, books were a precious commodity, a considerable investment of expensive materials and the time it took to copy the text by hand. Given their value, then, the monks sought to produce the most durable books possible, and they did this by using materials found in the natural world.

First, one needs a proper surface on which to write. In the Middle Ages, parchment made from animal skins was most common, and while parchment includes sheep and goat skin, The Saint John’s Bible was made specifically using calfskin, or vellum. Books printed on paper deteriorate over time, eventually turning brittle to the point that they can disintegrate into dust when handled, but manuscripts written on vellum dating from centuries before the printing press are still vital and vibrant.

Next, one needs a proper writing utensil. The artists of The Saint John’s Bible prepared all of their own quills from the feathers of turkeys, geese, and swans, with each bird’s feather suited to a specific kind of writing, from the embellished capital letters at the beginning of each chapter, to the main body of the text, to the impossibly tiny footnotes in the margins. The plumage was mostly stripped, leaving only the membrane, which was then baked in sand heated in a cast iron skillet. Then, with a few strategic cuts of a small knife, a feather becomes a pen capable of writing the Word of God beautifully and clearly.

And what is the medium for writing this Word of God? Ink. Ink that, like the vellum and quills, is made from materials in the natural world—various materials that are ground down, compressed into a mold, and fashioned into a small stick. The black ink sticks were made by Chinese calligraphers in the 1890s from the soot of candles; the red from vermillion; the blue from lapis lazuli; the green from malachite. Then, when the artist is ready for that particular color, the ink stick is ground once again onto a small stone to form powder. This is combined with materials like egg white, or egg yolk, or fish oil to form a liquid that can then be used to write.

Word Made Flesh, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Finally, precious metals such as gold, silver, and even platinum are used throughout The Saint John’s Bible to indicate the presence of God and to literally illuminate the page as they catch and reflect the light. This process of decoration is known as gilding. The artist carefully prepares a sheet of gold or silver or platinum leaf, which is as thin and delicate as tissue paper. The artist then applies a glue to the vellum called gesso, and breathes through a small tube in order to activate the glue. Think about that for a moment. The artist has literally given his or her breath in order to add the final touch of precious metals that will make this art luminous. Once the glue is activated, the artist applies the leaf and burnishes it with a stone in order to adhere it to the vellum.

Gold in particular is used to indicate the presence of God. In the Word made flesh illumination which you will see here today, Christ’s entire body is rendered in radiant gold leaf. If you were to stand before the original manuscript, you would see layer upon layer of gold, burnished into textures that indicate the features of a face, and yet, if you were to look into that polished gold surface, you would see your own face reflected back to you. This is a profound theological statement: through our Baptism, we are united to Christ, and as members of his Body, we are called to become Christ for others, to reflect his beauty out into the world, conforming ourselves to Christ so that we can say with St. Paul, “I now live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”

This stuff, these materials, are not only used in this incarnational art a reminder of God’s presence in his gift of the created world; they are also an image of the transfiguration that the Word of God can enact in our own lives. There is a certain messiness involved in turning calfskin into vellum or a turkey feather into a quill or adding egg yolks to a mineral that one has ground into a powder. The stuff of The Saint John’s Bible allows us to see how something inherently messy can be transformed into something extraordinarily beautiful, and it allows us in turn to see ourselves, as messy as we might be, as people who can worked on and made beautiful by God. It allows us to see our messy, conflicted, broken hearts as a surface on which God longs to write, to inscribe his words of love, that we might more closely resemble his beloved Son Jesus, the incarnate Word.

The stuff of the created world was not only used to make the images of The Saint John’s Bible, but it also figures into those images themselves, inviting us to see ourselves and the world around us in a different way. In the illumination of Creation from the book of Genesis, the creation of the cosmos is shown through astronomical imagery drawn from the scientific discoveries made in outer space. The creation of land depicts a satellite image of the Middle East where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow, reminding us that salvation history did not, and does not, unfold in the abstract, but in the particularities of time and space. The illumination of the Genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel features the elegant double helix of DNA in between the branches of Jesus’s family tree, which itself is designed as a menorah as a vivid reminder of Jesus’s Jewish heritage. Even the clothing and jewelry worn by the woman clothed with the sun incorporate designs found in Middle Eastern cultures.

Creation, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2003, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Used by permission. ​​All rights reserved.

The Saint John’s Bible holds up the beauty of the created world, both in the materials used and the incorporation of nature into the images themselves. At the same time, it holds up the remarkable ingenuity of human beings to co-operate with the creativity of God. The words of Scripture themselves are a result of human beings cooperating with divine inspiration, and as we marvel at the intricacies of the script and the images that bring Scripture to life, we cannot help but marvel at the gifts of the men and women who made them. The incarnationality of The Saint John’s Bible extends beyond its materials to include the dedicated artists who dotted every I and crossed every T in order to help a new generation of believers encounter Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.

The Saint John’s Bible also encourages us to think about time, and it does this in two different ways. The first way is to consider the time it took to complete the project itself. Donald Jackson, the lead artist and calligrapher who first had the idea for The Saint John’s Bible, knew when he was a seven-year-old child that someday he wanted to hand-write the entire Bible. He approached the monks of Saint John’s University in Collegeville Minnesota with his vision in 1995, and for five years, all they did was plan. It took five years of careful thought and prayer to determine the scope and nature of this project, and to find the right theological and artistic collaborators who could bring it to fruition.

With the plans in place, the first words, “In the beginning,” were inscribed on Ash Wednesday in the year 2000, and from that point in time, the team of artists and theologians worked tirelessly to complete the Bible, finally finishing it in 2011. Six calligraphers, eight illuminators, and one natural history artist spent eleven years of their lives painstakingly crafting the 1,169 pages and 160 illuminations of The Saint John’s Bible. To provide a point of comparison, it took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel.

The second way The Saint John’s Bible encourages us to consider time is by inviting us to recall the hundreds and hundreds of years throughout the Church’s history that calligraphers and artists have been writing and illuminating Scripture. The Saint John’s Bible has been called America’s Book of Kells, placing it in a long tradition of illuminated manuscripts. This Bible is a link in a chain of artistic tradition, and as such, it invites us who look upon it to see ourselves similarly, as links in a chain of the Christian tradition.

At the same time, The Saint John’s Bible as a work of scriptural, incarnational art encourages us to consider time in light of eternity, for the words on its pages point us to the Word, the eternal Son of God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, entering time so that “all who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

Like the beauty of The Saint John’s Bible, the beauty of all truly great art—including music and dance as well as visual art—is an incarnational beauty, for in it the material and the temporal become icons of the invisible and eternal God. The beauty of the created world, the beauty of true art, point beyond themselves, testifying to the beauty of the Creator. And as this beauty points beyond itself, it creates within us who experience it longing within our hearts to become more than what we are, a longing to go beyond ourselves and become part of the beauty that we encounter. In this sense, beauty goes beyond the realm of the merely pretty to become formative, even transformative.

It is this kind of transformative beauty to which Fyodor Dostoyevsky referred when he wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” For those who profess belief in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the visible image and icon of the invisible Father, beauty already has saved the world. All that remains is for us to allow ourselves to be transfigured by Christ’s beauty so that we ourselves might become more faithful icons of the Father’s icon, and through the beauty of our lives lived in Christ, we might in turn transfigure our world into a more faithful image of the Kingdom of God.

Featured image: Isaiah’s Vision, detail, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2005, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.