Illuminating the Word and Contemplative Landscape at New Mexico History Museum

Editor | - September 19, 2011

"Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape invite you to pause and marvel"

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible

Thirteen years of painstaking work by some of the finest calligraphers, artists and theologians in the world comes to a close this year with the completion of The Saint John’s Bible - a contemporary handwritten and illuminated Bible created by a team of artists and calligraphers at a scriptorium in Wales. Before its pages are bound into volumes and placed on permanent exhibition by the Benedictine monks at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., 44 pages from two of the Bible’s seven volumes - Wisdom Books and Prophets - will be exhibited at the New Mexico History Museum.

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible (Oct. 23 through April 7, 2012) will share its space and spirit with Contemplative Landscape (Oct. 23 through Dec. 31, 2012), a photographic exploration of how people have responded to and interacted with New Mexico’s landscape through art, architecture and sacred rituals. The exhibition prominently features the work of Tony O’Brien, whose 1994-95 sojourn at a New Mexico monastery forms the heart of his new book, Light in the Desert: Photographs from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert  (Museum of New Mexico Press), debuting with the exhibition.

“I consider this to be the artistic equivalent of the Apollo moon mission,” said Tom Leech, curator of the Palace Press. ”The Saint John’s Bible sets a standard of excellence in the 21st century that will never again be approached in our lifetimes. Combined with Contemplative Landscape, it offers visitors an opportunity to witness a historic burst of creativity and craftsmanship, and to reflect on their own spirituality, whatever form that may take.”

The project took root at an early 1990s retreat at New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch, where Jackson developed a concept piece titled "Christ in the Desert", expanding on a lifelong desire to create a handwritten and illuminated Bible. In 1995, he presented the concept and his sketches to Saint John’s Abbey, where he received the go-ahead to develop a version of the entire Bible with illumination, calligraphy and the finest materials - something with the staying power of 2,000 years. (Jackson’s New Mexico sketches will be shown for the first time in this exhibit.)

In 2000, he and a crew of artists and calligraphers began the first of 1,150 pages. Upon completion, the seven volumes will collectively weigh over 350 pounds and measure roughly two feet tall by three feet wide, when open. Guided by a combination of artistic skill and cutting-edge computer-assisted layouts, the project takes its place among the milestones of sacred literature.

“I hope some of the emotion that we have collectively managed to put into the Bible will touch the hearts and emotions of those people who look at what we put onto the pages,” Jackson said.

Contemplative Landscape

Drawing on the rich holdings of the Photo Archives, Contemplative Landscape’s black-and-white photographs explore the emotional and ceremonial purposes of spirituality in various New Mexico locations and landscapes. The Photo Archives recently acquired 20 of Tony O’Brien’s images from his Monastery of Christ in the Desert portfolio - the centerpiece of the exhibition. Additional images include historic photographs from the collections in the Photo Archives and images from contemporary photographers who have documented Sikhs, Buddhist temples, chapels, Catholic pilgrimages and more.

  “The idea is to think about the spiritual, however it manifests,” said Mary Anne Redding, curator of the Photo Archives. “What is considered sacred or contemplative varies. What these places have in common is that they draw people to them, either in the built or natural environment. Each is infused with an energy that collects over time as people come together or seek enlightenment.”

O’Brien has been photographing in and around Santa Fe for 35 years. In 1989, while on assignment for Life magazine, he was taken prisoner in Afghanistan for six weeks. He later spent a year as a practicing member of the contemplative community. During his stay, he was given free access to photograph the monks’ rituals and daily activities, contemplative and secular.

Founded in the town of Abiquiu in 1964, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert follows the Benedictine life with no external apostolates. It maintains a guesthouse for private retreats where men and women can share the Divine Office and Mass in the Abbey Church with the monks. Set in the Chama Canyon, about 75 miles north of Santa Fe, the monastery is surrounded by miles of wilderness, assuring solitude and quiet.

Other photographers represented in Contemplative Landscape include Deborah Hunter, Cary Herz, Don J. Usner, Teresa Neptune, Kirk Gittings, Janet Russek, Laura Gilpin, Ed Ranney, David Robin, Sharon Stewart and Nancy Hunter Warren.

Also part of the exhibitions are:

• A page from the 550-year-old Gutenberg Bible.
• Early editions of The King James Bible, this year celebrating its 400th anniversary.
• The Letter, the Word & the Book, a small exhibit of books and lettering in the Mezzanine Gallery from Nov. 4, 2011, to April 15, 2012.
• Free lectures, performances and workshops.
• An evening with Donald Jackson, artistic director of The Saint John’s Bible and Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords.

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape will be in the museum’s second-floor Albert and Ethel Herzstein Gallery.

Ecclesiastes Frontispiece, Ecclesiastes 1:1 - 2:11, 2006, by Donald Jackson, Copyright 2006, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
A Quiet Moment, Monastery of Christ in the Desert, 1995/2009. Photo by Tony O'Brien. Photo Archives at the Palace of the Governors, No. HP.2009.52.02.