By William Plummer
June 14, 1999 12:00 PM

Do you want me to make the word of God live on the page?” British calligrapher Donald Jackson asked Brother Dietrich Reinhart 3½ years ago. It was a simple enough question but, to Reinhart, the president of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., it spoke volumes. “Here I was, with all the stuff a college president has to be occupied with—budgets and meetings, staff, curriculum,” says Reinhart, throwing up his hands in mock frustration. “And I kept thinking about a handwritten Bible.”

If the question haunted Reinhart, Jackson’s answer promises to be even more captivating. Best known as Queen Elizabeth II’s court calligrapher, Jackson—who inscribed the wedding documents that united Charles and Diana—has started work on the Saint John’s Bible, the first complete, handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned since the printing press was invented more than 500 years ago. The result will be a majestic seven-volume compendium inscribed on vellum sheets 2 feet tall by 32 inches wide, ornamented with elaborate letters and drawings of biblical scenes (as well as Minnesota plants and wildlife) and painted with a variety of colorful inks made from precious stones and minerals, such as lapis lazuli (blue), malachite (green) and vermilion (red). Gold, silver, platinum and copper will be used to light up special texts. “It’s the calligrapher’s Sistine Chapel, the project of a lifetime,” says Jackson, 61. “What could be more wonderful?”

The Saint John’s Bible will be unique, says Jackson, in that it will reflect the contemporary world. “I am the first man to write a Bible who knows what the world looks like from 40,000 feet, who has heard of DNA,” he says. “We’ll incorporate that kind of knowledge into this. It will be of its time and place.” For their part, Brother Reinhart and the monks at Saint John’s see their Bible as “a gift to the generations.”

The text is the modern New Revised Standard Version (although Jackson admits to a bit of melancholy “that it’s not our King James”). He is producing the first volume by himself and will design the other six. The already completed first page, from the Gospel according to Matthew, was unveiled March 22. Viewers beheld a stunningly elaborate design: Jesus’ Hebrew genealogy—tracing back to such Old Testament figures as Abraham and Sarah, Noah and David—is depicted in a golden, menorah-shaped family tree, with intertwined spirals suggestive of the double helix of DNA.

The decision about which passages merit illumination is made by an ecumenical team of artists and theologians, including five of the 235 Benedictine monks cloistered at Saint John’s, a prairie campus and abbey some 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Jackson has known the monks since he gave a workshop at Saint John’s in 1981. “The discussions are lively, sometimes even loud,” says Reinhart. “No monk here has taken a vow of silence.”

One thing the monks did not need to debate was Jackson’s qualifications for the job. The son of a Lancashire, England, bicycle repair shop owner, Jackson became “enthralled” with writing at age 9, “when first my teacher had me put pen to ink.” He won a scholarship to art school at 13. “I knew from the start that this would be my career,” he says. “My first ambition was to be the Queen’s scribe. Second, I wanted to inscribe and illuminate the Bible.”

Jackson, who went on the Queen’s payroll in 1964, works out of a converted blacksmith’s shop across the lane from his home in Monmouth, Wales, where he lives with Mabel, his wife of 37 years; they have two grown children. Saint John’s is raising $3 million for the enterprise, which is expected to take six years and involve calligraphers and artisans from all over. “All the best people will want to be involved,” says Jackson, who promises to give them free rein. “An Islamic artist will bring a particular style, a Jewish artist another. We will look for ways to integrate the various cultures.” Jackson, meanwhile, is eager to do his thing. “I love taking the quill in my hand,” he says. “It’s an extension of my fingers, almost like a phonograph needle, but the music it plays comes from inside of me.” And he has been composing that music nearly his entire life. “It’s a little like a dancer who practices for 20 years and is onstage for 10 minutes,” he says. “I’ve been practicing for almost 50 years for this six-year project.”

William Plummer

Margaret Nelson in Collegeville