When open, a single volume of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition measures two feet tall by three feet wide. Its glimmering illuminations, themselves couched in the handwritten Word of God, are placed strategically to reflect light to the curious eyes that devour its pages.
At Dunham Bible Museum, next to this tome sits another Bible, just as unique – but this one can fit entirely in the square of your palm.
The contrast isn’t lost on Dr. Diana Severance, Director of Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, who said the display is intentional. “One of the things we do is say the Bible comes in a lot of different shapes, sizes, and formats – placing the miniature Thumb Bibles next to the majestic Saint John’s Bible illustrates that.”
Serving the Intersection of Worlds
Dunham Bible Museum, like The Saint John’s Bible itself, exists at the intersection of the artistic, historical and religious worlds. Built through acquiring collections of Bibles and other religious books over the past two decades, Dunham Bible Museum does indeed house a vast collection of Christian Bibles. On the “space” spectrum, The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition sits at one end, opposite the aforementioned “Thumb Bibles,” bite-sized replicas that feature the story of the Bible condensed in broad strokes – some as small as an inch square.
The growing diversity of texts at Dunham Bible Museum made A Year with The Saint John’s Bible a natural progression of the museum’s mission to “tell the story of the greatest book in the world.” An endowment on behalf of Archie Dunham, the museum’s namesake, enabled the museum to move toward full acquisition. Private and individual donations have accounted for most of the remaining funds, and Severance anticipates receiving the final volume in early 2019.
Modern Art Given Life from a Time Before
The connection of the project to historical art was important to Houston Baptist University and Severance herself. With a PhD in Ancient and Medieval History, Severance said that the distinguishing characteristic of the Heritage Edition – what makes it distinct from the myriad Bibles in the museum’s vast collection – is its place in the history of human innovation.
“It’s a beautiful example of hand-calligraphed scriptures the way they were before the printing press,” she said. “The beauty of the illuminations and the theological ideas that went into the illuminations were very meaningful.”
Among the thousands of volumes in the Dunham Bible Museum, a question arises about The Saint John’s Bible – how does it stand out? How does it help the museum pursue its mission? “It does that in several ways,” Severance said: by exemplifying that pre-industrial tradition, of course, but also by showing “the beauty of and value placed on scripture by the care and artistic development” when transliterated by human hands.
“We have medieval manuscripts and a facsimile of the 14th century beautifully illuminated Wenceslas Bible. While The Saint John’s Bible has the beauty of these manuscripts, it also brings a 21st century reflection to the text,” Severance said.
Timeless Experiences from a Timeless Tome
Like the other precious texts at Dunham, the Heritage Edition is displayed behind glass by default, but an introductory exhibit – the only exception to the rule – allowed visitors to view the text up close and leaf through its pages. Severance said, “We’ve had people comment about how special it was when we had that one evening when the Heritage Edition was introduced – how special it was to be able to actually turn through the pages themselves and experience the book a little closer at hand.”
While the museum and university detail the strategic plan for the Heritage Edition (which includes hopes for curricular appropriation, artistic interpretation and theological study), in its place across from a 1,200-seat theatre and a well-trafficked chapel, it remains a point of ponderance for students and visitors alike. For their spiritual life requirements, students answer questions on the different aspect of the volumes; other students have written captions describing the creation and artistic themes of each of The Saint John’s Bible’s 160 major illuminations to accompany their presentation.
“I personally am overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and excellency of the production,” Severance said. “The thought that went into the illuminations, the theology that goes into so many of them … it’s really very impressive.”
Severance said that as preparations begin for a March 2019 unveiling of the complete Heritage Edition set, visitors to the museum remember its initial unveiling event. One repeat visitor, eager to see more of The Saint John’s Bible, still specifically checks to see if museum staff have turned the pages since his last visit. More often than not, they have.