University Park, Texas – There is a power in witnessing two of the most sacred historical texts side by side in one single glance. The vibrant pages of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition’s illumination titled “Vision of New Jerusalem,” resting open beside the fragile, sepia-toned pages of the Codex Sassoon – a circa 900 text known as the earliest, most complete and fully intact Hebrew Bible — is an experience that is nothing short of profound.
This is precisely the feeling that Southern Methodist University (SMU) granted to the attendees of Codex Fest – a festival to celebrate the University’s position as one in only five locations in the world to host the Codex Sassoon during this time period. The historical importance of the Codex Sassoon cannot be overstated. Written on parchment and bound in leather, the work is as close to priceless as it could possibly be. According to CBS News, it is the most valuable book ever sold at auction in history.
“People loved that juxtaposition [of the two texts], they had different but also comparable experiences — some came for the historicity of the Codex, but then found themselves drawn into the aesthetic beauty and complexity of the Heritage Edition,” said SMU Bridwell Library Director Anthony Elia. “This was a once in a lifetime event, and it did not disappoint.”
The Saint John’s Bible is the first and only hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible crafted in more than 500 years. The work was commissioned by Saint John’s University in 1998, when renowned calligrapher and former official scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Donald Jackson, agreed to sign on to the historic project.
At once grounded in history and propelling the text into the 21st century, The Saint John’s Bible accomplishes the incredible feat of both reflecting and inspiring the lived experience of Christian spirituality in the modern era, serving as an incredible means for contemplation for guests witnessing this work in conversation with earlier iterations of the same text.
Viewers of this special occasion were left awestruck, their eyes glued to each text with profound admiration.
“People were taking as much time experiencing the Heritage Edition as they were with the Codex Sassoon,” said Brad Neary, Director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program.
“The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition was so thoroughly enjoyed that we’ve had church groups contact us to have additional viewings in the months to come,” said Michelle Ried, SMU Bridwell Library’s operations and programs manager and lead organizer of Codex Fest.
Inside the Fest
While attendance was projected at 800 – 1,000 visitors by the event’s organizers, Codex Fest ended up amassing a crowd of more than 3,500 people. Thanks to Elia; Ried; Arvid Nelsen, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts; Jesse Hunt, Conservator at Bridwell Library; and other organizers, the Fest became one of the largest events held at SMU in recent history.
“It was extraordinary that we were able to host this event and pull such a great variety of people together,” said Elia. “It meant a lot to us all.”
Codex Fest guests included students, professors, industry leaders, academic researchers, staff, community members, among a few other very familiar faces. Notably, Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States, attended, too.
On site, guests were welcomed to an array of activities. Brad Neary presented two lectures on The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition in the Perkins Chapel, followed by a panel discussion that included Neary; Elia; Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s Senior Consultant for Judaica; and Professor Joseph Sassoon. Mintz is a representative of Sotheby’s, the auction house responsible for curating the Codex Sassoon. Professor Sassoon is a member of the Sassoon family and Professor of History and Political Economy at Georgetown University. At the event, he spoke on his family’s behalf about the time of their ownership of the Codex. He recently published a book on the matter titled, The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire.
The Perkins Chapel also featured daily live organ recitals each morning at 8:30 am by Associate Professor of Sacred Music Christopher Anderson, as well as a chapel service that premiered a new choral work, A Mass for the Missing,by Fernando Berwig, a musician pursuing his Master of Sacred Music degree at the Perkins School of Theology.
In addition to The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition and the Codex Sassoon, attendees were drawn to an exhibition showcasing a broader selection of sacred, historical works. In the Birdwell Library, on display were two Gutenberg Bibles, the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, and Egyptian material and papyrus.
In Prothro Great Hall, attendees explored open tables hosted by book, paper, and calligraphy artists. For lunch, food trucks were provided and lined up outside with a variety of options for guests to enjoy.
“It was by far the most energy-filled event we’ve ever done,” said Elia. “It was intense, insane, and wonderful all at once. We will never replicate it again. It was incredible.”
SMU is now recognized as the only university to house the Codex Sassoon on its five-city international tour before it became available for auction on May 17th. According to NPR News, the sacred text sold for $38 million dollars in New York at the auction to the former United States ambassador to Romania.
Acquiring The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition
Southern Methodist University acquired its Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible in November 2022 after a generous anonymous donor with a personal connection to the University offered to sponsor the acquisition.
But acquisition of a Heritage Edition involves much more than simply receiving the seven-volume text. The endeavor begins with a retreat to Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where up to six members of an inquiring institution explore the grounds of the campus and the history of The Saint John’s Bible. The spiritual experience spells a transformative perspective on the Benedictine values of life and community.
According to Neary, this “Deep Dive” is a powerful experience for guests. Not only do participants gain a deep understanding of the complexity of The Saint John’s Bible, but contemplate the concepts, context, and origin of the original text. Complete with opportunities to worship with the monastic community at Saint John’s Abbey, visitors truly get to “soak up the ethos of the campus” and “return to their institutions aglow with Benedictine hospitality,” in the words of Neary.
“The Deep Dive was an all-encompassing, and perfect few days that brought together so much that we often felt the fullness of The Saint John’s Bible experience in the context of where the project originated,” said Elia, who attended the Deep Dive in November 2022. “Being in the church space, the library, the gallery, and on the campus in the woods and by the lake was such an extraordinary and spiritual experience — it was truly transformative.”
Months after the Deep Dive, faculty and staff at Southern Methodist University participated in a docent training session. At the session, Neary led an instruction on how to properly care for the Heritage Edition, provided the story behind the original manuscript as well as the printed Heritage Edition, and gave insight to how the SMU can fully share this work of sacred art with constituents or communities.
“The Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible has come to mean a true embodiment of the community and the church,” said Elia. “The work behind its creation, the thought and collective intentionality of putting it together, creating it, and now experiencing it is one of the greatest joint accomplishments of a Christian religious community in modern times.”
Even though the Codex Sassoon is no longer exhibiting at the university, the seven volumes of the Heritage Edition will be on permanent display at Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library.
The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition:Ignite the Spiritual Imagination
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