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Paynesville Press - October 9, 2002

Reproducing the St. John's Bible

By Michael Jacobson

When finished, the St. John's Bible will be the first commissioned completely hand-written Bible in 500 years, since the advent of movable type by Johann Gutenburg revolutionized the printing industry nearly 550 years ago. Prior to that, all Bibles were copied by hand. Since that, virtually all have been printed.

The pages of the historic St. John's Bible are coming to Paynesville, a few at a time, where the 21st Century technology at ColorMax is being utilized to reproduce these pages digitally.

Original page of the St. John's Bible The St. John's Bible project is a long time in the making, and ColorMax's job is to preserve the images digitally and make high-quality reproduction possible in the centuries to come. "What ColorMax is bringing to this project is a way to capture these images in a way that is more vibrant and real than any (other) process could be," said Carol Marrin, director of the St. John's Bible project, "as well as offering a variety of ways for reproduction."

An original page of the Bible in the frame created by ColorMax for photographing the pages.

Calligrapher Donald Jackson, the scribe to the Queen of England, who did the calligraphy for Princess Diana's wedding invitations, first mentioned his desire to do a hand-written version of the Bible in 1970. He started discussions with St. John's University in 1995, after giving a calligraphy presentation sponsored by the university, and signed a contract in 1998.

"Do you want me to make the word of God live on a page?" asked Jackson during his negotiations to create the St. John's Bible.

He and his staff of ten (four calligraphers, three illuminators, a graphic designer, a proofreader, and a project coordinator) work at Jackson's atelier - his calligraphy workshop - in Wales. They mix new technology with the old in the artist's studio, using homemade inks and quills from goose feathers while at the same time laying out the entire Bible by computer in order to know the locations for the brightly-colored, including gold gilded, illuminations.

Theologians at St. John's University identified the passages to illuminate and helped Jackson by building a theological story for each one. A committee of artists, theologians, Biblical scholars, and art historians examined and created a "theological story" for each of the 150 illuminations in the Bible.

The text for the St. John's Bible is the New Revised Standard Version, which is a revised form of the King James Version. It was originally revised in 1952 and then revised again to add inclusive language in 1989, becoming the NRSV.

The illuminations and the text were laid out on computer, so calligraphers would know where to start and stop on each page. It takes up to 10 hours to calligraphy two columns of text, not including the illuminations and ornate page numbers.

"When I was a nine-year-old, desire led me to copying ancient scripts and decorated letters. I loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of the flow of colored ink as its wetness caught the light," writes Jackson, now 64, on the project's website ( "Now, I am led to the making of the Bible as a celebration of the word of God for the 21st Century in modern scripts, and I realize now it is the thing I have been preparing for all my life. The Bible is the calligraphic artist's supreme challenge, my Sistine Chapel, a daunting task."

The St. John's Bible was broken into seven volumes, with the first volume being the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Future volumes include the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the remainder of the New Testament.

The seven volumes of the St. John's Bible will total over 1,100 pages, which will be finished by Jackson - and photographed and reproduced by ColorMax - over the next four years. Just to print these pages will take ColorMax over 2,000 hours.

While the hand-written Bible would seem to be rooted in the past, this version is intended to be a modern production. The illumination of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, for example, contains DNA strands in the artwork to indicate the genetic ancestry of Christ.

People 500 years from now should be able to look at the St. John's Bible and see that it is a product of the early 21st Century, said Marrin. And it will not only represent the 21st Century, but it will represent Minnesota in the 21st Century. One of Jackson's illuminators - who specializes in natural history and who will be doing the illuminations that include animals and plants - spent a week in the woods around St. John's University to look at the vegetation and the animals. From that experience he will include native insects and grasses in the Bible's artwork.

Jackson, in addition to supervising all the work, is doing all the capital letters and all the illuminations, though in collaboration for some of them. "He actually thought when he started that he could do it all," said Marrin.

"He is one of the few calligraphers who has made a living doing (calligraphy)," added Marrin. "Lots of people do calligraphy because they love to do it, but not many make a living doing it."

Reproducing the Bible
ColorMax staff holding printed page of Bible ColorMax will create 25 full-size, limited edition, replica copies of the original St. John's Bible, using a German paper that is "very similar in size and weight and feel to vellum," said Steve Miller, ColorMax's sales representative. Each of these replica seven-volume versions, which will have 16" by 25" pages, is expected to cost over $100,000.

They will be printed on demand.

The ColorMax staff with reproduced pages of the St. John's Bible. Pictured from left: Steve Miller, Wayne Torborg, Jeff Zumwalde, Terri Sixta, Mike Mayer, Cal Sixta.

"It's an honor to be working on a project like this," said Miller, who worked for over a year to get the project for ColorMax. "It's not just a job for us. We're part of history."

St. John's University has already been approached by four publishers to produce smaller, trade editions of the St. John's Bible. Other possible products include posters, prints, bookmarks, and greeting cards.

"You could easily take this (illumination) and frame it and sell it as fine art," said ColorMax owner Cal Sixta, looking at one multicolored drawing in the St. John's Bible.

To get the finished pages from Jackson's atelier in Wales to the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., they ride in the cockpit of a jet, courtesy of Northwest Airlines.

When needed, the originals are brought to ColorMax in Paynesville in the morning from St. John's University and returned every night to a climate-controlled vault.

The first step in the reproduction process is digital photography to capture the image. ColorMax constructed a new digital camera studio upstairs in their office in downtown Paynesville. They even made a special stand to place the vellum pages, which provide a challenge since they don't lay absolutely flat, despite being sanded by hand at Jackson's atelier.

Vellum comes from calf hides, which are not perfectly flat, said Wayne Torborg, ColorMax's digital photographer. "The real secret is to get it as flat as possible and if there is a bubble to get it in a place where it doesn't matter," he said.

One variable is the translucency of vellum, which varies from skin to skin and sometimes within a skin. Another challenge is to capture the gold in the illuminations, which is meant to reflect light, in the best possible way, which is done mainly by experimenting with the level of light, said Torborg. The illumination of Christ's crucifixion, for instance, took a half day for him to photograph.

Their scanning digital camera records one millimeter at a time. It takes 28 minutes to photograph a single, nearly 16" by 25", page.

Since the vellum is very sensitive to heat and humidity, the photography studio has to be climate controlled for temperature and humidity. The lights from the camera dry the air, so they need to add humidity to the studio, waiting between pictures to restore optimum conditions before taking another photograph of a different page. They even have special heat shields for their camera lights to protect the original skins.

On a good day, Torborg can photograph eight pages. Actual pages are onsite at ColorMax only two or three days a week to be photographed, but work continues while they are not there. By the end of October, ColorMax should have photographed all 132 pages for the first volume: the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

ColorMax hopes to have a finished replica of the first volume done by Christmas. Jackson's team should have the second volume, the Pentateuch, done by early 2003, and then it will be brought to St. John's and to ColorMax.

ColorMax made sure to shoot the pages larger than needed now (32" by 42", nearly twice the actual size, and at 300 dpi) in order to have a digital file that could be used for myriad uses in the future.

Printing page Just to open, save, and close one of these digital files takes 25 minutes, said Torborg. They make two CDs of each page and use extra hard drives to transport the photographic files downstairs, where Sixta, using the fastest Macintosh available, retouches the photos on computer. It may take him two to five hours for pages with an illumination or only half an hour for pages with text only.

Then the pages are laid out on computer by Mike Mayer and finally they can be printed.

ColorMax uses several state-of-the-art Roland inkjet printer, which cost $25,000 each and which Sixta considers the best on the market. In order to get the color exactly right, the printers were calibrated beyond their factory specifications, said Sixta. Page of the Bible being printed at ColorMax.

ColorMax also needs the original pages for color proofs. "We need the originals to compare," said Miller. "Not for the text, but for the illuminations."

For proofs, they print strips of their digitized version and compare it with the original. Then they make color corrections and print more test strips, usually a half dozen per page. "There is no automatic, easy way to do this," said Sixta. "It's all custom work."

On average, Torborg and Sixta spend about five hours per page. It takes another hour to print a finished page.

Digital Technology
The role of ColorMax really exemplifies how the old technology is being mixed with new technology for the St. John's Bible project, said Marrin, using cutting-edge digital technology to reproduce the Bible pages as faithfully as possible.

"The skill employed here is in some ways equal to what Donald does," said Miller.

Sixta, who worked for 13 years in the printing business, started ColorMax, which specializes in preprinting production and graphics work with his wife, Terry, 10 years ago in Paynesville. "We took one aspect of the printing process and specialized in it," he explained.

While the business has done a lot of catalog and magazine work over the years, about three years ago they got involved in the digital reproduction of artwork, making reprints of fine art. That experience in reproducing artwork helped them land their role in the St. John's Bible project. "What it did," explained Miller, "was give us a tremendous amount of experience with artwork. That's what this (St. John's Bible) really is. It's artwork. It's the Bible as art."

To do the reproduction work, ColorMax was chosen over a higher-profile firm, Sixta and Miller said.

ColorMax offered a couple of advantages. One is that they could do the entire reproduction process, from photography to printing. "We control the whole process," explained Sixta, "from capture to finished product. There are few places to get that."

Another is their proximity to St. John's University, which made the logistics of photographing the pages and returning them to the university easier.

ColorMax is not working on a contract, meaning the St. John's Bible project could go elsewhere at any time if they were not satisfied. "If we don't do a good job, they'll walk away. They're not bound," said Miller. "It's business the way it used to be: if you do a good job, they'll stay with you."

To do the project, ColorMax had to install the new digital photography studio, buy a new computer, buy more printers (with more possibly needed in the future as well), and had to rent space next door.

The lasting impact for ColorMax could be greater than the four years of work it will take to photograph the St. John's Bible and to make the replica editions.

If all goes well, they could be the prime source for future reproductions of the St. John's Bible, due to their familiarity with the raw files, their familiarity with the project staff, and their ability to do high-quality work. "What we're looking forward to is when we can just print," said Sixta. "Then all the hard work will be done."

In addition, Miller hopes the project will open new markets for the company, including opportunities in document and manuscript preservation. "It's a high-profile project," Miller explained. "It gives us instant credibility."

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