Illuminating the Word: Promoting Christian Visual Arts

Posted on October 22, 2008

I love going to art museums—being surrounded by and immersed in visual beauty is a luxurious pastime that often feels like a selfish indulgence of the senses. Sadly, I seldom extract myself from daily responsibilities to indulge my soul and spirit in such a feast.

Today was a rare and treasured exception. I took a personal retreat and sojourned across Mobile Bay. Our local art museum (Mobile Museum of Art) just opened the St. John’s Bible exhibit, which is the first illuminated Bible commissioned since the advent of the printing press—a contemporary masterpiece of medieval craftsmanship and calligraphy by world-renowned British calligrapher Donald Jackson and his team of scribes and artists.

 As I crossed the threshold into the softly lit hall, I felt as if I were entering the Holy of Holies. My mind and soul hushed as I approached the first of 50 two-page hand-illuminated scrolls from both the Old and New Testaments created with gold leaf on oversized (2 x 3 ft.) vellum.

As part of my one-day retreat, I had just spent two hours in the morning savoring, studying and silently reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Philippians (chapter 4), so when I set my eyes upon the “Illuminating the Word” display, I stood in awe, speechless before the scriptures. It was one of the most sacred times of worship I have ever experienced.   

 Featured are selections from the first three completed volumes of The Saint John's Bible: Pentateuch (the first five books of Jewish and Christian scripture), Gospels and Acts and Psalms. Highlights include folios of The Seven Days of Creation, Genesis, The Garden of Eden, The Ten Commandments, The Birth of Christ, The Crucifixion and the frontispieces for the four Gospels. Experiencing the hand-written word of God in juxtaposition with these stunning and vibrant illustrations, I could feel the breath of God (ruwach) stirring and calling the two creative expressions to life.

 The exhibit includes a BBC video, which chronicles the mission statement of the Bible's commissioning and Jackson's  lifetime dream of creating an illuminated Bible and its seven-year labor of love. "At the dawn of the 21st century, Saint John's Abbey and University seek to ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world by commissioning a work of art that illuminates the Word of God for a new millennium." 

I lingered on the thought that God’s handprint was stenciled on the day’s sojourn. Only last week I had enjoyed extensive conversations in Nashville with worship colleagues exploring ways we might develop to promote and support Christian visual artists—photographers, painters, sculptors and filmmakers. 

 It’s been thrilling to see the restoration of the visual arts in expressions of worship over the past decade. I’ve been able to help many churches with obtaining permissions for visual images, but it’s quite difficult tracking down the copyright owners and there’s a deep need for easier licensing and royalty revenue that would help support Christian visual artists.

Since experiencing the sacred power of “Illuminating the Word,” my passion and dedication is renewed to develop new licensing solutions that will honor and encourage Christian visual artists. In the 1990's, popular worship recordings and licensing royalty revenues began to allow many songwriters to dedicate themselves full-time to their writing ministries. My hope and vision is that we would soon see the same kind of financial support and revenue streams support and encourage Christian visual artists to flourish in their calling. 

 "Illuminating the Word: The Saint John's Bible" is organized and circulated by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota. The exhibition and its national tour made possible by Target. I am a faithful Target shopper (abhor Wal-Mart), and they have just won my eternal admiration for their support of the arts.