Illuminating Words: A Report on my Conference Travels

Submitted by Jonathan Homrighausen
MA Student, Jesuit School of Theology
CARE/GTU Fall 2015 Grant Recipient

This past weekend, I flew out to Michigan for the “Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty” conference, held at Spring Arbor University as the Midwest Conference on Christianity and Literature. The call for papers for the conference asked for papers on The Saint John’s Bible, the first major hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press. In addition to being an MA student in Biblical Studies at the Jesuit School of Theology, I work at Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections. My favorite part of my job is showing our facsimile of The Saint John’s Bible, the Heritage Edition, to classes, community groups, and individuals.

However, since The Saint John’s Bible was completed in 2011, there has been almost no scholarship analyzing it. I came to this conference to give my own paper on The Saint John’s Bible and to hear other scholars’ views on it. Not only did I succeed on both counts, but I also left with a broader lens on how Scripture and the arts can all interrelate.

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The Heritage Edition on display; check out the size of this Bible!

The Saint John’s Bible is a Bible for the 21st century, and its illuminations relate scriptural texts to many of the issues we struggle with today. My paper analyzed selected illuminations in Gospels in relation to Jewish-Catholic dialogue. I found that many illuminations positively reflected post-Shoah advances in Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

Jesus’ Genealogy: The Frontispiece to Matthew– notice the menorah imagery!

Several illuminations foregrounded Jesus’ Jewishness using Jewish symbols such as menorahs, stars of David, and Hebrew/Aramaic words. The single illumination of the Passion avoids assigning blame to Jews and focuses only on the glorified Christ on the cross.

However, I argued that two illuminations actually escalate the Jewish sectarian polemic in the Gospels: the illumination of the woman with the alabaster jar, interrupting the dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7:36-50; and the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. I read both illuminations as inserting an anti-Torah polemic where the text only contains anti-Pharisee or anti-scribes-and-Pharisees polemic.

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Luke 7:36-50; The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and Simon the Pharisee

Needless to say, my talk elicited vigorous discussion! I left my session feeling energized, full of new ideas. Of all the seven talks at the conference that I gave or heard related to The Saint John’s Bible, mine was the only one that criticized it.

Another high point of the conference for me was meeting Fr. Michael Patella. Patella is a New Testament scholar, a Benedictine monk, and the chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text that advised the artists of The Saint John’s Bible on what to illuminate and how to illuminate it. His keynote focused on intertextuality in the illuminations. Although I have read his book Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible cover-to-cover, he mentioned several anecdotes and layers of meaning in his talk that were not in his book.

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Patella speaking on Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis

Later that day, I was able to sit down with him for a good 20 minutes. I had a list of burning questions: how much was Jewish-Christian dialogue in mind when they created this Bible? Why were certain passages not illuminated, such as the Flood in Genesis? What did he wish he had done differently? Patella left me feeling encouraged to pursue my own projects related to this Bible.

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I had been presenting this Gospels and Acts until Patella walked up; I stepped aside!

I heard some fascinating papers touch on specific aspects of The Saint John’s Bible, such as the Fall, Mary and Martha, and errors and their corrections. However the most interesting paper I heard all weekend was given by Jonathan Juilfs of Redeemer University College in Canada. Juilfs, a medievalist, compared the Oxford Apocalypse (Douce 180), a medieval apocalypse with 97 illuminations, to the Revelation illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible. He read the woman with the dragon in Revelation 12 in The Saint John’s Bible as an indigenous woman, that she in fact becomes all women.

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The Woman and the Dragon in Douce 180

During Q&A, I pointed out some of the intertextual connections in The Saint John’s Bible he didn’t mention, iconographic motifs in the illumination of the woman and the dragon that connected this woman to Mary Magdalene, Esther, the Son of Man in Daniel, the snake in the Garden of Eden, the covenant with Noah, and the wisdom tradition. There seemed to be a moment where we were mutually perplexed and floored by the depth of this single illumination. Juilfs and I vowed to continue our conversation!

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Woman and the Dragon in The Saint John’s Bible

I would like to thank Jeff Bilbro of Spring Arbor University for coordinating such a well-run conference. The food was good, transportation was on time, and I saw no tech problems all weekend. On top of that, every paper I heard was quite good. I would also like to thank CARE for the travel grant that enabled me to make so many great connections at the conference. As I fly back to the Bay Area, I am committed to incorporating the literary and artistic reception of the Bible into my studies in Scripture at the GTU.


Image Credits:

Genealogy of Jesus, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Dinner at the Pharisee’s House, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Douce 180 image from Bodleian Library: