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The Saint John’s Bible:  Home at Last

Last Thursday was a very special day at Saint John’s, because on that day we dedicated the gallery that now houses The Saint John’s Bible.  The day was singular for many reasons, and not least because it fulfilled calligrapher Donald Jackson’s promise to “give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.”  He delivered on both counts, though some of the deliverables were not entirely what we had expected.  For one thing, we didn’t have a clue how complicated this project would become.  It was also a good thing that we didn’t know how much it would end up costing.  And last but not least, it took a lot longer than the seven years we had all anticipated.  But the good news is that — twenty-one years and eleven months after Donald Jackson and I first discussed this — the Bible that he promised now sits securely in its own gallery at Saint John’s University.

IMG_7285Over the course of twenty years I’ve given a lot of talks on The Saint John’s Bible.  No two presentations have been exactly alike, and on many an occasion I’ve even gleaned bits of wisdom from my audiences.  The first instance that opened my mind to this possibility happened at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I gave several gallery talks.  I had just concluded my observations on Thomas Ingmire’s illumination of The Ten Commandments, when a young woman raised her hand.  “Father, I can see in the illumination what you’re saying, but here’s what I see.”  She then gave her own interpretation, and I have to say that I found her words very persuasive.  That prompted my response:  “Well, to be honest, what you have to say sounds better than what I had to say.”  I’ve since quoted her many times, with attribution.

This produced one of my first lessons from The Saint John’s Bible.  Never insist on having the last word when it comes to art.  That actually confirmed an experience I’d had some years earlier at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where I’d had the temerity to offer my own thoughts on a painting in the course of a docent-led tour.  The chewing out that came my way branded me an art heretic, and I resolved never to do that again, even if I knew I was right.  Life is too short for getting into fusses with imperious docents.

IMG_7287An equally valuable corollary came from that experience in the de Young.  That day I realized that if the docent was wrong, I could be too.  I had to admit to myself the mathematical possibility that I too could be wide of the mark, on rare occasions, someday.  Ever since then I’ve steeled myself for just such an occasion by pulling out of mothballs one aphorism from high-school Latin — De gustibus non est desputandum.  Simply put, when it comes to matters of taste, it’s generally counterproductive to argue.  And given the times, who knows what might result from a minor spat.

My experience with The Saint John’s Bible has also confirmed the sage advice that patience is indeed a virtue.  When we announced the project, our press release quoted Donald Jackson to the effect that he intended to create something that people would come a thousand miles to see.  The day after the announcement, a lady in Bismarck, ND, called to say that she was on the way to see it.  I gently told her that this was going to take more than two or three days to finish, and that I’d get back to her when it was done.

That was twenty years ago.  Sadly, I’ve lost the scrap of paper with her name and number; but she knows who she is, and I hope she’s reading this.  If not, I hope one of her friends will tell her that we’re ready for her, finally.

So at long last The Saint John’s Bible is finished and at home in its gallery.   Will people come a thousand miles to see it?  Given that one visitor at the opening had flown in from Serbia, I can safely go out on a limb and offer a very decisive “probably.”  Will viewers have ideas about this Bible that differ from mine?  I hope so.  Otherwise, I’m in for a lot of really dull tours.

IMG_7345Notes

+This was a very full week for me.  On October 4th I took part in the dedication of the Genesis Gallery in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  The feature of this space is an 18th-century de-commissioned Torah scroll from Syria.  The space serves as the entry into the Bible Gallery.

+On 5-6 October I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees at Saint John’s University.

+On 5 October we celebrated the opening and dedication of the Saint John’s Bible Gallery, and that evening I was part of a panel of three speakers that addressed the topic of the day.

+On 6 October I took part in the dedication of the Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, a grand addition to Alcuin Library.  This completed the rebuilding of the entire library complex, and the numbers so far are quite telling.  In the four weeks of September 2015 — before the project — 12,000 people entered the Library.  In the comparable four weeks of 2017 over 32,000 entered the library.  Apparently the old saw still holds true:  build it and they will come.

+On October 7 I participated in homecoming festivities at Saint John’s University and attended the football game which hosted Augsburg College.  Saint John’s won that one 48-3.  That evening I went to bed at 8 pm, simply because I had not one ounce of energy left.

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