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Exquisite exhibit: Hand-illuminated pages of Saint John's Bible on display in Moorhead

One of the illuminations in the Saint John's Bible depicts Jesus wearing blue jeans. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership1 / 3
The first page of the Saint John’s Bible, penned in March 2000, greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibit. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership2 / 3
Local calligrapher and project leader Anne Kaese stands with her favorite folio titled ‘Wisdom Woman.’ ” Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership3 / 3

In 2013, the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County hosted the Heritage Edition of the Saint John's Bible at the Hjemkomst Center, generating great interest and enthusiasm in the community.

Less than 24 hours after the exhibit closed and they were still basking in the glow of the its success, the HCSCC and a troupe of dedicated volunteers decided to go for the original pages.

At the time, they didn't know how much of an undertaking it would be.

But now, after nearly four years of countless volunteer hours, fundraising events and logistical preparation, original pages of the hand-calligraphed, hand-illuminated Saint John's Bible are on display on the lower floor of the Hjemkomst Center.

The "Illuminating the Word: The Saint John's Bible" exhibit includes 68 original folios of the monumental artwork commissioned by Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1995.

It's one of the biggest exhibits of the Saint John's Bible in the world, HCSCC Executive Director Maureen Kelly Jonason and project leader Anne Kaese said in a joint interview.

"This is not your grandma's Bible. This is a magnificent work of the human hand," Jonason said. "This exhibition is an incredibly unique opportunity for the community to see."

The Saint John's Bible is the first illuminated, hand-written Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in 500 years.

A collaborative team of calligraphers, artists, theologians and scholars spent more than a decade creating each of the 1,127 pages with hand-cut quills and ancient inks ground from precious minerals on calfskin vellum.

They penned the first words in March 2000 and finished the Bible in May 2011.

Tim Ternes, director of the Saint John's Bible, said they use the term "illumination" instead of "illustration" because "these artworks help to visually unpack the scriptures."

"That pairing of word and image serves as visual and spiritual meditations that encourage people (from all backgrounds) to come together and make meaning," he said.

Organizers emphasize "Illuminating the Word" is accessible to everyone, not just for those who identify as Christian, and celebrates how far we've come in the last 500 years.

Each of the 1,127 pages took calligraphers up to 15 hours to complete. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership

"This is a world-class exhibit serving to ignite the spiritual imagination of all peoples and all cultures," said Kaese, an area calligrapher and enthusiastic arts advocate who's volunteered hundreds of hours to lead the project. "The Saint John's Bible says it's perfectly fine to have an icon of Jesus in blue-jeans and a Carhartt sweatshirt out in the field as much as it is to have him shimmering in gold, so that when you look at the image, you have your own face reflected."

The monastery agreed to commission the work as long as the translation was literal, gender-neutral, scholarly and inclusive while maintaining criteria set by the Catholic Church.

For this reason, the Bible uses the New Revised Standard Version translation, Ternes said.

"Because the Bible is a communal work (that's) meant to be shared, it needs a translation that's as widely approved or used by others as possible," Ternes said. "The New Revised Standard Version happens to be one of the few translations of the Bible in English that is officially approved by almost every major Christian church worldwide."

Ternes has been involved with the Saint John's Bible for the last 14 years. He's worked closely with the HCSCC and its volunteers since they approached him with the idea in 2013. Weekly programming like the "Foods of the Bible" brunch on Oct. 29 at the Hjemkomst (tickets available on Eventbrite) and other community events take place in conjunction with the exhibit until it closes Dec. 31.

Trained docents are available on site to lead tours and answer questions.

Admission to the exhibition is $10 for children and $15 for adults. HCSCC members get in free. Memberships are available for visitors interested in exploring the exhibition multiple times.

"Seeing it once is not going to be enough," Kaese said. "It's the gift that keeps on giving."

The exhibit features 68 folios of the original hand-calligraphed, hand-illuminated Saint John’s Bible. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen

If You Go

What: "Illuminating the Word: The Saint John's Bible" Exhibit

When: Now through Dec. 31, 2017

Where: The Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead

Info: To learn more, visit www.hcscconline.org/sjb.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.

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