The St. John’s Bible: Reflections on encountering the text

I finally made it over to the Chazen Art Museum to take in the current exhibition featuring illuminations and text from the St. John’s Bible. Surprisingly, seeing the text of the New Revised Standard Version in beautiful calligraphy had a more profound effect on me than the many remarkable illuminations. Seeing familiar words in a radically different form on a very different medium was strange, powerful, and revelatory.

As I wandered through the exhibition, reading Psalms and other texts I know by heart, texts I’ve preached, study, taught, the text became holy again, sacralized by the vellum, the years of work and craftsmanship, the beauty on the page. As I wandered and paused to read familiar passages, I realized how very different this encounter with scripture was from my normal experience of it.

I rarely read the text of the Bible on a printed page. When I read scripture, whether it’s studying in preparation for a sermon or the personal devotion of the daily office, the text I read is digital, on a computer screen or ipad. There are sound reasons for this. Access is much quicker and easier. I can call up the text I want in my web browser or my daily office app. I can manipulate the font size to make it easier to read; I can easily cut and paste the verses I want into the text I’m working on. All of that instrumentalizes the text. Even when I’m praying the psalms or using lectio divina, I’m approaching the text of scripture using the same techniques and technology that I use when I’m browsing the web or reading online. The text serves me; it’s at my beck and call.

One of the most disorienting things about the St. John’s Bible is that it is the New Revised Standard Version—the version I use when preaching; the version I used when I taught Bible. It’s the version I know; the version I’ve instrumentalized. Even more shocking is that the calligraphers included the footnotes from the NRSV, the textual variants or alternative translations that complicate the text. To see even this minimal scholarly apparatus in beautiful calligraphy, at the bottom of beautiful pages is jarring.

The exhibition includes items related to the production of the Bible. At the very end are several examples of early printed bibles, a leaf from one of the first editions of the Authorized Version (King James Version) from the collection of the Hill Monastic Library at St. John’s University, and two 17th-century editions of the same version from the University of Wisconsin Library. The inclusion of the two latter bibles in the exhibition invites reflection about the different role of scripture in print and Protestant culture as opposed to its role in Medieval Christianity. The Protestant Reformation was shaped by the new technology of printing and Protestant culture was shaped by printing as well. The possibility of cheap, mass-produced bibles was unthinkable in the fifteenth century. While printing made the text accessible to anyone who could read (or hear), it also began a process of transformation that has only been accelerated by the arrival of the computer. The introduction of versification led to the extraction of the text from its literary context, just as my ability to call up the verse I want on the internet permits me to ignore the same literary context. That, along with the reproduction of the text on cheap paper and in cheap bindings, appearing visually very much like any other text we might encounter, allows us to approach the text, to read it even, less deferentially. What we have gained in accessibility over the last five hundred years we may have lost in sacrality.

 

More information on The St. John’s Bible is available here: http://www.saintjohnsbible.org

 

An Offering of Angels

Yesterday, Corrie and I toured the Offering of Angels exhibition currently at the Chazen Museum of Art. We were accompanied by Maria Saffiotti Dale, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts at the museum.

It’s well worth a visit, consisting of paintings from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, most of which are rarely displayed publicly. The paintings are generally tied thematically to the Eucharist and other Biblical and religious subjects, ranging from the Fall to the Resurrection. Most of them date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

While a number of them are particularly interesting I was drawn to this painting by Cristofano Allori of “Christ being ministered to by the angels.” Allori was a Florentine painter (1577-1621)

The painting’s placement among images of the resurrection, and just after images of the passion, reminded me of Lk 22:43 “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” The more likely parallel is with Mt. 4:11 “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” One can see a demon departing to the left in the painting.

What fascinates me more is the Eucharistic imagery in the painting. Some angels are bringing bread and wine to Jesus while others hold a basin in which Jesus is washing his hands. The exhibition catalog suggests this particular theme appears often in monastic institutions during the Catholic Reformation, especially in rooms designated as refectories.
I’m not sure about that whether that explains this particular image. It’s not very large (32cm x 52cm).

That Jesus is washing his hands as angels bring him bread and wine evokes for me the ablutions a priest makes during the Eucharist so the image might be directed at a priest’s devotions and to underscore the role of the priest as mediator of Christ’s presence to the faithful. A quick search of google images returned no other depictions that included Jesus washing his hands and most were much less obviously Eucharistic in focus.

Also in the exhibition are two other paintings with striking Eucharistic imagery. One is an image of the grieving Madonna by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607)

The other is an image of Christ by Jacopo di Chimenti da Empoli (1551-1640), in which blood from the wound in Jesus’ side empties into a chalice: