by Philip Haldiman)
Scribes with quills in hand were once the conduits of history, connecting ink to vellum, painstakingly preserving the records of the world.
Then, in the 1400s, the printing press virtually put scribes out of business.
Later came the Internet and hand-held devices, relegating handwriting to the bottom shelf of an ever-increasingly paperless world.
But the art of handwriting is not co
mpletely lost. In fact, it is being showcased in a special way at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Paradise Valley this Easter season.
More than 15 years ago, the Benedictine St. John's University in Minnesota began work on its millennium project, a seven-volume, handwritten, illuminated manuscript containing all 73 books of the Catholic Bible.
To share it with the rest of the world, creators are producing 299 museum-quality volumes, all hand-bound in Phoenix, called the Heritage Edition.
Jim Triggs, executive director of the Heritage Edition, said the seminal edition is the first handwritten, illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years.
One of the reproductions is finding a permanent home at Paradise Valley's Franciscan Renewal Center, he said.
Triggs said the St. John's Bible is the first handwritten Bible of its scale since medieval times.
The Heritage Edition consists of 1,150 pages bound into seven volumes, each 2 feet by 3 feet when open and weighing about 20 pounds. They present the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, through calligraphy and illumination, a technique used to embellish the work with luminous colors, especially gold and silver.
Triggs said the mission of the project is to ignite the spiritual imagination of people around the world.
The original St. John's Bible is a work of art sprung from handmade authenticity and detail, a rarity in these modern times, Triggs said.
"This is one of those things — you can read an article about it, but when you see it live, there's a wow factor," he said. "Whenever I've done a presentation about this Bible, inevitably there is somebody who starts crying because they get so emotionally wrapped up in the art."
The original manuscript sits in the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library on the campus of St. John's University.
The Heritage Edition sets are currently in production, with the binding being done at Phoenix-based Roswell Bookbinding, one of few companies in the world with the specialized capabilities to complete such a project.
Triggs said that, so far, 100 sets have been acquired by institutions around the globe, ranging from libraries to churches of many different denominations, including the Vatican outside Rome and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
Arizona State University also has a set that was donated in 2010 and is available for viewing at Hayden Library.
The Franciscan Renewal Center, or the Casa, as it is more informally known, has four volumes, with the remaining three to arrive as funds become available.
When applicable, the Casa is using the Heritage Edition volumes for Mass and Easter ceremonies.
"The Franciscan Renewal Center (and ASU) has works of art in their own right. No two seven-volume sets are identical," Triggs said. "That's because many of the illuminations required final hand treatments to the gold and silver in order to make them true to the artistic intent of the original."
The original manuscript was completed in 2011, but Arizonans got their first glimpse of original folios when it toured and was exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum from December 2007 to March 2008.
Steve Nelson, a former trustee of the Phoenix Art Museum and a St. John's alumnus, said the response was so great and the Heritage Edition so important that Arizona should have a set readily accessible to residents in perpetuity.
Nelson said he and four other St. John's alumni families decided to give the Heritage Edition to the Casa.
They have raised $100,000 for the four volumes and need about $50,000 more to complete the set.
"The Casa is the perfect home for this Bible," Nelson said. "The Franciscans and Benedictines have a long history through the ages."
Casa Friar Joe Schwab said prayer and interaction with the Benedictines in Italy 800 years ago led St. Francis of Assisi to develop his faith and ultimately form his own "Order of Friars Minor" — the Franciscans.
The early Franciscans began using Benedictine facilities as they grew in number during the early Renaissance, he said.
"To this day, the (Franciscan) friars give the (Benedictine) monks a basket of fish as a symbolic rent for the church, while the monks give the friars a gift of olive oil in return as a recognition of the long-lasting esteem and recognition between the two orders," Schwab said.
The St. John's Bible is the lifelong dream of Master Calligrapher Donald Jackson.
Jackson, who lives in Wales and is the senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Crown Office at the House of Lords, has said that it is akin to re-creating the Sistine Chapel.
It has won praise around the world — Smithsonian Magazine called it "one of the most extraordinary undertakings of our time," and Pope Benedict XVI called it "a work for eternity."
Jackson was not available for comment, but Triggs said Jackson oversaw the Bible's development at every stage, which took more than 15 years to complete.
In the 1990s, St. John's Abbey at St. John's University began looking for a millennium project centered on the Bible. Jackson, a longtime friend of the university and abbey, pitched the idea of a handwritten manuscript containing all 73 books of the Old and New Testaments in the Catholic Bible using medieval techniques and materials.
The $8 million project consisted of six calligraphers and six illuminators working closely with biblical scholars, theologians and art historians at St. John's University.
Diane von Arx, one of those illuminators, worked on parts of the Old Testament.
The pages were designed and typeset on computer, she said. After proofreading, the scribes copied the text onto calfskin vellum with hand-ground ink from 19th-century Chinese ink sticks.
For colors, a number of materials was mixed with egg yolk and water to make paint that is thicker than the black ink and loaded onto the quills using brushes — goose quills for the main body of text, turkey and swan quills for heavier letterforms.
Gold leaf was used to illuminate the Bible.
Von Arx said the Heritage Edition is a high-end reproduction printed on special specified Monadnock paper made at a New Hampshire mill especially for the project.
It was printed by John Roberts Co. in Minneapolis. The gold leaf was replicated with a variety of foil embossing methods done by McIntosh Embossing Inc. in Minneapolis and finally bonded at Roswell Bookbinding in Phoenix.
It was quite an honor to work on the project, von Arx said.
"In the scope of Bibles and art and Scripture, it is certainly the project of the millennium," she said. "It is the most comprehensive and important project I will work on."
Roswell Bookbinding was founded in 1960 and built its foundation on rebinding books for the Phoenix Public Library and then other libraries in the state. In 1970, it started binding new books and expanded from there, President Mike Roswell said.
The company now specializes in high-end books and has worked on prestigious projects, but Roswell said he had never had to fly to another state to interview for a job. In 2008, he traveled to St. John's to compete for the project against two other binders, one in Germany and one in England.
Roswell said binding the Bible is 25 percent mechanical, done on a new stamping press, and 75 percent by hand. A team of five bookbinders, some of whom have a lifetime of experience making bindings by hand, are working on the project, including Roswell.
There is an incredible amount of work that goes into binding such a unique book, he said.
"The sheer size of each book makes it difficult," Roswell said, adding that he has never seen so many people curious about the binding of a book.
"The most fascinating part of this is how many people have come through to see the Bible," he said. "People actually come down to the bindery to see us work on it. They'll call us and say, 'Hey, I'm in Arizona on vacation. Can I come in and look at it?' "
Celebrating a special bible
What: Twilight Retreat: Illuminating Lent with the St. John's Bible.
When: 6 p.m. dinner, 7 p.m. presentation, Wednesday. Presentation is free, $20 for dinner. Registration is required for dinner. RSVP at thecasa.org/programs-a-retreats or 480-948-7460.
Where: Franciscan Renewal Center, 5802 E. Lincoln Drive., Paradise Valley.
See the Bible: Viewing hours: 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily. Viewing is free.