The Saint John's Bible

The Saint John’s Bible is the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey since the invention of the printing press.

Beginning in 1970, master calligrapher Donald Jackson expressed in media interviews his lifelong dream of creating an illuminated Bible. Following a Saint John’s University-sponsored calligraphy presentation at the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1995, Jackson discussed a handwritten Bible with Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, former executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Between 1996 and 1997, Saint John’s explored the feasibility of the Bible project, Jackson created first samples, and theologians developed the illumination schema. The Saint John’s Bible was officially commissioned in 1998 and funding opportunities were launched. The public was introduced to the project in 1999 and production was completed in 2011, with the final word penned in May 2011 and touch-up work completed by December 2011.

The Saint John’s Bible is divided into seven volumes and is two feet tall by three feet wide when open. The Bible is made of vellum, with 160 illuminations, and according to Abbot John Klassen has cost an estimated $8 million[1] to produce. The version of the Bible used is the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE).[2] A copy of the Bible has been presented to the Pope at the Vatican in several volumes, with the final volume being presented on 17 April 2015.[3]

The scriptorium of The Saint John’s Bible is located in Monmouth, Wales.


"At the dawn of the 21st century, Saint John’s Abbey and University seek to ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world by commissioning a work of art that illuminates the Word of God for a new millennium."[4]


Donald Jackson, official scribe to Her Majesty's Crown Office at the House of Lords, created a new script specifically for this project.

The creators of The Saint John’s Bible used a mixture of techniques used in the creation of ancient illuminated manuscripts (handwritten with quills on calf-skin vellum, gold and platinum leaf and hand-ground pigments, Chinese stick ink) and modern technology (computers used to plan the layout of the Bible and line-breaks for the text).


The Saint John’s Bible consists of seven volumes:

  1. Gospels and Acts (completed in May 2002): 25+ illuminations, including opening illuminations to each gospel
  2. Pentateuch (completed in August 2003): Illuminated text from the first 5 books of the Old Testament
  3. Psalms (completed in April 2004): Illuminations include the digital voice prints of songs from various ethnicities/religious backgrounds
  4. Prophets (completed in April 2005): Includes Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, and Baruch
  5. Wisdom Books (completed in July 2006): Includes Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, Wisdom, and Sirach
  6. Historical Books (completed in March 2010): Largest page count, 25+ illuminations, includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Judith, Esther, Ruth, Tobit, 1st and 2nd Maccabees
  7. Letters and Revelation (completed 2011)

The Committee on Illumination and Text

During production, a team of scholars and theologians gathered weekly to develop the theological content behind the illuminations. This included not only developing the schema for the illuminations (i.e., which passages would be illuminated), but also identifying underlying themes and elements for the artists to incorporate. The Committee on Illuminations and Text met in Collegeville, MN, while much of the artwork was produced in Wales, resulting in a transatlantic collaboration as drafts were passed between the two groups. Michael Patella OSB, chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text, explained the underlying purpose of their work: "The illuminations are not illustrations. They are spiritual meditations on a text. It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.”[5]

The Heritage Edition

The Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible is the full-size fine art reproduction of the original. Measuring two feet tall by three feet wide when open, it is the exact size of the original manuscript. Each volume of the Heritage Edition is signed by the chief scribe and illuminator, Donald Jackson. The edition is limited to 299 signed and numbered seven-volume sets and contains the same volumes as the original. Many of the illuminations are touched-up by hand, including the burnishing of gold leaf. In addition, an eighth volume of commentary that places The Saint John’s Bible in its historical context and describes several of the illuminations will accompany the volumes.

Institutions and individuals around the world have acquired approximately 100 of the 299 available sets of the Heritage Edition.

Trade Edition

The Trade Edition of The Saint John’s Bible are smaller, printed copies of the seven volumes available for purchase. They are roughly the size of coffee table books, measuring 10" x 15.2".

Seeing the Word

In collaboration with Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary, curriculum has been developed that aims to educate people on the The Saint John’s Bible and its underlying goal of igniting the spiritual imagination. Seeing the Word, co-produced by Liturgical Press, is a collection of resources promoting meditation on the Scripture and illuminations through the prayer process of visio divina (based on lectio divina).[6]

Other Recently Produced Handwritten/Illuminated Bibles

Early in the marketing campaign, the commission responsible for The Saint John’s Bible made the claim that it would be the first handwritten Bible in 500 years to the best of their knowledge. The commission was then made aware that several other Bibles had been completed within the time frame, and in Spring 2004 (between the April and May mailings of advertising for the Bible), the phrase “commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery” was added to the advertising and official website. At least one other privately illuminated manuscript, reproducing selections from the Bible the Pepper Bible preceded The Saint John’s Bible in this timeframe.

The Saint John’s Bible staff


  1. The Augusta Chronicle, August 22, 2012
  2. "A Bible for the Times". The Saint John’s Bible. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
  3. Rajkowski, Frank. "Final volume of St. John's Bible presented to pope". SCTimes. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  4. "St. John's Bible - Home". Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  5. Sink, Susan (2007). The Saint John’s Bible : an introduction. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press. ISBN 0-8146-9100-5.
  6. "About Seeing the Word". Seeing the Word official website. Retrieved 20 January 2012.
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