Illuminated Bibles connect health facilities with communities

May 1, 2016


It isn't easy to lure people out of their warm homes in the dead of winter in Eau Claire, Wis. But, in January 2011 a couple hundred community members braved the cold to view a set of pages from an illuminated Bible completed that year by an international team of calligraphers, artists, scholars and theologians.

Several people were so inspired by the prints that they formed a committee to purchase a $145,000, seven-volume set of the Saint John's Bible for the community. "People said, 'We need to get these volumes in the community,' and within less than six weeks the community had raised the funds needed to purchase the Bible and have it on permanent display in our area," said Ann Kaiser, director of the foundation for HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, one of three facilities that have hosted and displayed the Bible volumes since they arrived in Eau Claire in September 2011.

Courtesy of Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minn., 2014
The seven-volume Saint John’s Bible took about 15 years to create, beginning in the late 1990s. Artists and calligraphers used traditional tools and inks. This is the heading for the book of Matthew, in the Bible volume containing the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

Sacred Heart is among the dozens of institutions — including hospitals, museums, libraries, universities, churches and monasteries — that have purchased or temporarily displayed the Saint John's Bible set since its creation. Pope Francis personally blessed the Library of Congress' edition in September when he visited Capitol Hill to deliver a speech to Congress.

When he brought the idea of an illuminated Bible to fruition, calligrapher Donald Jackson of Wales was acting upon an aspiration he'd had since he'd viewed illuminated Bibles at the British Library as a child. In the late 1990s, he secured a commission for the Bible from the Saint John's Abbey and University near Minneapolis. That abbey, founded by Benedictine monks, helped to get funding for the project through individual philanthropists, foundations and other donors.

Jackson and Saint John's assembled an international team of art historians, experts in medieval history, artists, biblical scholars, theologians and calligraphers to plan and create the Bible. For more than a decade, they collaborated on a far-reaching effort to hand-letter the complete text of the Bible on calfskin vellum and to incorporate original art to illuminate the text. The calligraphers and artists used traditional tools and inks to create the manuscripts. The original, 1,165-page manuscript is 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide and contains 160 illuminations. It is housed at a museum at Saint John's University in Minnesota.

The Saint John's Bible team also created 299 museum-quality reproductions of the original — called the Heritage Edition — that come in seven-volume sets that now cost $165,000. Institutions can purchase this edition, as the Eau Claire community has done. Or, they can host one of the seven volumes for a year for $9,500. The Saint John's Bible team also offers hardcover coffee-table versions of the Bible for up to $70 per volume and fine art prints of some of the Bible's illuminations for up to $300.

Most institutions hosting or purchasing the Bible hold workshops, guest lectures and other community programs to teach people about the creation of the Bible and to let them touch it under controlled conditions.

In Eau Claire, the community elected to house the volumes at Sacred Heart; its sister hospital HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls, Wis.; and at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire because the hospitals' lobbies are accessible to the public and have security in place. Each of the three sites have one or two volumes at a time in glass display cases. Occasionally, the pages are turned. The hospitals rotate the volumes annually, so that each site over time will display all of the volumes.

Courtesy of Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minn., 2014
An international team of artists created the 160 major illustrations in the seven-volume Saint John’s Bible. This illumination of the phrase “To the Ends of the Earth” is in the volume that includes the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.The phrase appears in Acts.

Philip Anderson, director of spiritual care at Sacred Heart, said hosting the Bible has helped unify the hospitals, one of which is a competitor. It's also been "a new way to dialogue with the community. We have speakers come and talk about the Bible, and it's a new way to engage with people."

Nancy Hollingsworth, president and chief executive of Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, Calif., "fell in love" with the Bible when she saw one of the volumes displayed at the motherhouse of the hospital's founders, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, said Teri Amerine, vice president of the Saint Agnes Foundation. The hospital subsequently displayed two loaned volumes of the Bible as it conducted a yearlong fundraising effort to purchase a seven-volume set.

The set the hospital purchased with donations in November 2014 is on permanent display in the medical center. Saint Agnes has been hosting presentations about the Bible and taking the Bible for "show and tell" for groups outside of the hospital.

Frank T. Beazley, vice president of mission integration at Saint Agnes, said the volumes "are truly exquisite and each page is unique. … People are always taken aback by the size and beauty" of the set.

Bible to be displayed at assembly

Attendees of the Catholic Health Assembly in June in Orlando, Fla., will have the opportunity to view a volume of the Saint John's Bible. The Gospels and Acts volume of a Heritage Edition will be on display during the annual meeting. Information on the assembly is available at


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.