This Historical Books is another of the volumes of the seven-volume, twelve-year project of the Saint John’s Bible directed by Donald Jackson, Senior Illuminator to the Queen of England’s Crown Office. Among the Biblical historical books are Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Maccabees. As a note on the copyright page says, “Donald Jackson, as Artistic Director, gathered a group of artist-calligraphers and illuminators from around the world” for the project incomparable in ambition and quality. The original is held at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University founded by the St. John’s Abbey of Benedictine monks which is the publisher of the volumes.
This Historical Books volume–as the others–comes as close to the original in appearance and quality as possible in a printed book. The pages are off-white resembling the vellum pages of the medieval illuminated religious books which are the inspiration and model for the St. John’s Bible project. Beginning paragraphs of sections have decorative initials of their first words, with the text in a legible medieval cursive. Medieval writing and art techniques using eggs, feathers, calf skin, hand-ground inks, and gold and silver accent were used for different parts of the book. The illuminations–i. e., illustrations–are bright and shimmering. For the most, they are abstract, geometric, mosaic-like designs, in some cases with figures or symbols as a part of them. In keeping with the style of medieval books, besides larger illustrations, the Historical Books has some smaller marginal illustrations (sometimes called vignettes). In this volume, these are mostly insects, e. g., ants, honey bees. The illustrated matter of insects–while it may seem idiosyncratic–is also in keeping with the medieval illuminated books–in which are found images of cows, cats, and other animals of the agrarian culture of the period.
Medieval illuminated books were the inspiration and model for this and the other St. John’s Bible volumes. But Jackson and the other artists did not confine themselves to the ancient model. Artistic director Jackson aimed for a modernized, ecumenical style. Middle Eastern and Judaic imagery as well as Catholic as in the Middle Age books can be seen in the illustrations; and there are touches of Hebrew and Greek script mostly as marginal complements to the basic cursive script of the text. The work is an artistic delight for any reader. But as for the Middle Age illuminated books made by monks working in scriptoria, this work was done mainly with a religious purpose in mind. Like the medieval books, it is basically a work of religious art intended to be a form of praise of God for believers.