Review of S. Sink, The Art of the Saint John's Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Sink, Susan, The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Wisdom Books and Prophets (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008). Pp. 112. Paper, US$14.95. ISBN: 978-0-8146-9063-5.

The Saint John’s Bible is an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota.[1] Begun in 1998, it is a conscious attempt to recapture the idiosyncratic liturgical and devotional aspects of illuminated manuscripts of the past. As Susan Sink explains in her introduction, “Illuminations are never illustrations, always theological reflections. They are more than pictures accompanying the text” (p. 8).[2] In this helpful work, Sink’s goal is to “foster . . . reflective experience with the [biblical] text and the illuminations” (p. 10). The format of the book is eye-catching and accessible: selected images from The Saint John’s Bible are reproduced – first from the Wisdom books and then from prophetic literature – and Sink then provides a brief theological commentary on the text along with an analysis and observations on the illumination.

As an example, we will consider the entry for Isaiah 52-53 (pp. 68-69). The image is stark, lacking the effervescence and brightness of other images reproduced in the book. In the center is a small figure enclosed by what appear to be bars. Surrounding this figure is a stunted and dark calligraphic rendering of Isa 53:4b-6. Like all the images in the book, this image is reprinted on far too small a scale for the reader to appreciate truly the artistry and complexity of the work, but it is large enough for the reader to understand the tone the artist intends. In her comments, Sink juxtaposes this image with the illumination titled “Messianic Predictions” (pp. 62-63), which treats Isa 7:14. The two images could not be more different, as “Messianic Predictions” is filled with gold – here used to signify the presence of God – and trumpets blasting “hallelujahs” to the heavens. As Sink notes, though, “These two illuminations together, however, bring out the true nature of Christ,” that is, both God-filled and suffering as a human (p. 68). That suffering is contemporized through the adaptation of modern images of suffering. For example, Sink writes that the bars in the “Suffering Servant” illumination are based on the fence at Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, she writes of the lone figure in the middle of the image, “Drawn from images of starving children, victims of the African famines, it is a familiar portrait of suffering, and one that never ceases to move us.” She continues by connecting the resonance from the image to a spiritual lesson, and notes, “Oppression, injustice, neglect, war, and poverty are indeed the result of our iniquity. Here stands a figure that is vulnerable and yet able to redeem us” (p. 68). As proof of her claim, she points to the cross above the image, made from the same bars that confine it, but now made of gold.

Given her stated purpose, Sink’s work succeeds very nicely. Readers are introduced to and invited to ruminate on selected images from the Saint John’s Bible in a thoughtful and engaging fashion. However, as someone unfamiliar with the Saint John’s Bible, I was at times frustrated by a lack of background information on the project, but perhaps the publisher is assuming a more targeted audience. Additionally, as I note above, the images are simply too small for viewers to appreciate them entirely, but the accompanying website alleviates this quibble slightly. In sum, this slender book is an appealing aesthetic experience that asks its readers to contemplate scripture devotionally, linguistically, traditionally, and visually.

Dan Clanton, Doane College

[1] More information about, as well as images from The Saint John’s Bible can be found on their website at http://www.saintjohnsbible.org. reference

[2] For more on the use of art to teach the Bible, see Dan Clanton Jr. and Lynn R. Huber, “The Bible and Art,” SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online: http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=707. reference