Ink, Quill, and Goal

[Editor’s Note: Midway through our eight-week series on The Saint John’s Bible, Anne Kaese muses on The Saint John’s Bible as a calligrapher who helps bring it to life through workshops and presentations. For an introduction to The Saint John’s Bible and this series, click here.]

We all have a goal – one of mine is to run a marathon. So far, I can run a temperature.

Donald Jackson, the Queen of England’s senior calligrapher, had a goal of writing the Bible by hand – using the traditional methods of 500 years ago (Figure 1, right). He had even found the inks for it in an old shop in England that was closing. They had a box of 100-year-old black Chinese ink – 144 sticks, pure soot, and perfect for the job. So he bought it and some red ink sticks and stashed them away for that ‘one day’ when a goal might become a reality. Donald Jackson would describe his dream as ‘the calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge (our Sistine Chapel), a daunting task’.

Beginning in 1984, he had developed a relationship with the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Would handwriting the Bible be too large a project? The decision was that if one was going to do a big project, then do it all – why run a 5k when a marathon is possible? In 1998, the millennial celebration project was launched to create The Saint John’s Bible. Calligraphers and artists from around the world were commissioned to play vital parts in the innovative yet traditional project, one last achieved 500 years ago.

The Bible was written on oversized calfskins prepared by hand at the Scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales during the driest time of the year. Both sides are used, which become four pages of writing and art. The quills are made by hand from feathers from the leading edge of the wing and cured and cut at the Scriptorium. I have a collection of these quills – maybe twenty now. This tool could have been used by monks on Iona or at Kells – the tools and art in The Saint John’s Bible are time-tested and trusted.

The splendid and vibrant illuminations are modern, meaningful, and energetic interpretations of biblical texts meant to reach people in all walks of life in our twenty-first century. Images in this Bible of the earth taken from the Hubble Telescope (Figure 2, left), DNA strands, the Twin Towers, Holocaust skulls, digital voiceprints, and butterflies from Minnesota are representations of modern life, our relationship with science and nature, and how we now interpret art and literature with our imaginations. Social justice, the role of women, conversion, and hospitality are recurrent themes in the images. ‘Just as the Earth is not still, neither is scholarship, neither is depth of understanding’, Jackson said.

As a calligrapher, I am often faced with a blank white page. An opportunity for the ends of the earth, a damnation of human creativity. Too much white space sucks the imagination dry. But calligraphy is not just handwriting – it is mark making, whatever those marks are. So very often I will dirty the end of the page with a mark – something that will most likely get cut away during framing, but a sullying mark nonetheless. It is my statement that whiteness and purity are transient – they are interpretations of a state, of a moment in time. I remember that it took 142 sticks of ink to do all of the 1127 pages of black lettering in the Bible, two sticks short of what they had. Just enough. I am reminded that the tools we have, the opportunities we are given, are transient, and our marks can either move us forward or hold us back.

The tools of calligraphy are simple – ink, pen and something to write on. And yet, as I sit in my studio here, I am surrounded by so many more tools and variations of tools. I have created a Calligraphic Clutter that my children will never know what to do with when I die. Who really needs 18 different shades of black ink or black ink with silver or gold flecks? And I am sure that if this were a contest of gathering blacks, I would not win that either. We become obsessed with the perfect ink, the perfect tool, the perfect way to begin a project, end a project. And so we don’t always ‘do’. We ponder, plan, plan some more, tear it up, walk away, and come back to the white sheet with the mark in the corner to not make it white anymore. Such is the life of a calligrapher. The mark maker – the searcher of the perfect black. Always searching, losing, searching – and that is a good thing.

The calligraphy in The Saint John’s Bible is a monumental effort of human endeavour (Figure 3, left). Eighteen miles of black script a few millimetres high.  It could be eighty – it is backbreaking, high concentration and intensive work. And yet it is magical. You can feel the energy of the artists coming off the page. When I write something, I believe that the energy, love, kindness, sadness that I push onto the page will push out into the universe. I feel that energy.

When we hosted an exhibit of original pages last year, I would play the ‘Lights Off Game’ in the gallery. I loved to be the last person out of the gallery: walking around, cleaning the cases and removing fingerprints and nose smudges from people trying to inhale the beauty, enjoying the quiet after a busy day with guests, and the best part: turning off the lights. There was a nanosecond of time when the gold on the pages would glow in the darkness – a splinter of a moment where I knew that love, kindness, and joy could radiate in the world, even in darkness. And to me, that glint of light is where faith and art intersect – the seeing of what is not often seen, the feeling of not being alone in an empty room, the knowledge that lack of energy and electricity has not stopped the power from coming out of the pages.

Calligraphy requires planning – it is scheduled spontaneity. The end result is anticipated after much drafting but it should still surprise me – not shock me, but surprise me in the discovery of some new insight, new connection, new revelation. And so that is what The Saint John’s Bible is for me. After studying it for nearly 20 years, I am always finding, learning, experiencing – sometimes at the technical level, sometimes at the spiritual, but most often at the ‘I am human and you are too and this is amazing’ level when I share my passion. What we send out in word or deed has a consequence, a return… that travels to the ends of the earth.

Remember how Donald Jackson bought 144 sticks of black ink? He needed 142 to complete the Bible. And the red ink sticks? Over time, Jackson had given many away. Now he would be short. On telling this story, a lady recipient of a stick said he could have it back. Enough red ink sticks drifted back to Monmouth to complete the writing. Goal!


Image Credits

Figure 1: Artist Donald Jackson used a wide range of materials to illuminate The Saint John’s Bible, including red vermillion pigment from the 1870s used for bullets and footnotes. Copyright Michael Freeman, Michael Freeman Photography , London, England.

Figure 2: To the Ends of the Earth. Donald Jackson with contributions from Sally Mae Joseph and Andrew Jamieson. Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Figure 3: Donald Jackson works at his tilted desk in the Schoolroom. Copyright Michael Freeman, Michael Freeman Photography, London, England.


  • Anne has been doing calligraphy for over 30 years and started freelance writing 12 years ago for a wide variety of audiences. She started following The Saint John’s Bible project in 1999 and has been hooked ever since. She has organized three art exhibitions and experiences of Saint John’s Bible materials. She has taught calligraphy and bookmaking at St John’s University. Her goal with any project is to create a new appreciation of innovation and creativity in an attempt to solve a problem. She was awarded as the YWCA ‘Woman of the Year’ in Art and Communication. Her studio is in Fargo, ND.

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