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Calligraphy tour-de-force celebrates traditions, methods and materials of sacred texts

March 17, 2015

Photo: Calligrapher writing Arabic letters

Elinor Aishah Holland uses a bamboo pen and black ink to form Arabic characters during a demonstration event at the Chazen Museum of Art for the exhibit “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible.”

Photos: Eric Baillies/Chazen Museum of Art

Scribes representing each of the Abrahamic religions shared their skills and sacred-text traditions with the community Thursday as part of the Chazen Museum of Art’s programming for “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” which closed Sunday.

The Saint John’s Bible is a calligraphy tour-de-force, celebrating the traditions, methods and materials of handwritten sacred texts. Commissioned by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, the 1,150-page bible was handwritten and illuminated by Donald Jackson, the calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth II, and his team of scribes and artists. While the Saint John’s Bible is, of course, a Christian work, the monks sought to include all the Abrahamic religions, and so Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy can be found among the illuminations.

Photo: Holland carving bamboo pen

Holland shows Chazen visitors how she carves a piece of bamboo into a pen that she will use to write Arabic calligraphy.

The Saint John’s Bible was written and illuminated with the traditional tools and techniques that were used prior to the invention of the printing press. During Thursday’s event, calligraphers Linda Hancock, Rabbi Kevin Hale, and Elinor Aishah Holland showed museum visitors how the sacred text traditions are practiced today.

Rabbi Kevin Hale of Northampton, Mass., is a trained Sofer, or Torah scribe. He works with quill pens fashioned from feathers, as the Saint John’s Bible scribes did. While the Christian Bible has many translations and editions, the Torah conforms to very specific rules.

“The idea behind the copying of Torah is that Moses sat down and took dictation from God and we’re just republishing it,” says Hale. “We don’t have the option of illuminating, either artistically or in terms of interpretation.”

While in Wisconsin, Hale discovered that he has a special connection to the Saint John’s Bible: His teacher, Rabbi Eric Ray, was a student of Donald Jackson.

Elinor Aishah Holland of Rockland County, New York, first became interested in Arabic script while living in Turkey, and spent the next 20 years becoming a master of Arabic script. “You are never finished learning Arabic calligraphy,” she says.

Rabbi Kevin Hale (right), Torah scribe, demonstrates tools and techniques used in writing and repairing Torah scrolls and other sacred Hebrew texts.

Arabic scribes use pens fashioned from bamboo or reed, because, unlike English or Hebrew, the letters use many pushed rather than pulled strokes of the pen and so require a more rigid pen. Arabic calligraphy is usually written on specially sized and prepared paper, whereas Hebrew and Latin sacred text is written on vellum (calfskin) or parchment (sheepskin).

Linda Hancock of Madison discovered calligraphy as an undergraduate and went on to make a career of it. At the Chazen, Hancock demonstrated how ink is prepared from a pressed stick made of the soot created by burning vegetative material. She also showed how a pen is prepared from the quill feathers of a goose, swan, or turkey.

Hancock has studied with Donald Jackson and Thomas Ingmire, among others.

“[The Saint John’s Bible] is absolutely incredible,” she says. “The hours and years of work that went into it, and the artistry … it’s truly amazing.”

—Kirstin Pires

Tags: arts, books, religion