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Medieval-style Bible is a marvel at Garden City’s Episcopal cathedral

The Very Rev. Michael Sniffen looks through one

The Very Rev. Michael Sniffen looks through one volume of The Saint John's Bible, a handwritten illuminated Bible, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City has a copy of a most special Bible in its keeping — one that took 15 years to make, measures 2 feet by 3 feet, and was produced in the way that Catholic monks made Bibles in medieval times, drawn painstakingly by hand.

One volume of the illuminated Bible is on loan for a year from the Benedictine monks at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, who came up with the idea of creating the first medieval-style Bible of this size in 500 years, since the invention of the printing press.

“There’s a lot of excitement” over the copy of The Saint John’s Bible, which arrived at the cathedral on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, said the Very Rev. Michael Sniffen, dean of the cathedral, which is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. “When people hear the story and the amount of work that it took to create a Bible, they’re just blown away.”

While the Bible is an ancient text, this one has a contemporary take, with paintings of such things as the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center mixed in as they relate to Scripture readings, Sniffen said.

The team of calligraphers that produced the Bible was headed by Donald Jackson, senior illuminator to the Crown office of Queen Elizabeth II.

The original copy of The Saint John’s Bible is on display at the university in Minnesota in a special climate-controlled room. The monks commissioned 299 copies produced by a special printing press made in Germany, and some of those copies are circulating across the United States and around the world.

The Garden City cathedral — itself an example of medieval Gothic architecture and at 221 feet the tallest religious structure on Long Island — paid the monks $10,000 to have one volume on loan for a year.

It is being kept in a special glass viewing case in front of the altar and will be taken out and used during Masses on Sundays. Parishioners and visitors will be able not only to look at the Bible, but to touch and interact with it, Sniffen said.

“This Bible is unbelievable,” said Gail Corrado, 77, of Garden City, as she marveled at the book on Friday. “It kind of takes your breath away. It’s a treasure.”

The Saint John’s Bible, which was completed in 2011, is made up of a total of seven volumes. Two volumes were displayed at Molloy College in 2014-15, and the college later bought all seven volumes for $150,000, said Edward Thompson, Molloy’s vice president for mission and advancement.

Copies of the Bible have gone on display at about 100 sites in the world, most of them in the United States, said Jim Triggs, executive director of the Heritage Program, which handles loans and sales of the Bible.

The sites include churches, universities, hospitals and libraries, among them The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, Siena College in Albany and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Some of the monks and Jackson presented Pope Francis with a copy for the Vatican in April 2015. They also donated a set to the Library of Congress in the presence of the pontiff during his visit to Washington, D.C., in September 2015, right after Francis addressed Congress.

The calligraphers used quills and ink for authenticity in creating the text, which was written on vellum, or calfskin. A single page could take eight to 12 hours of work just for the text, Triggs said. The seven volumes total 1,150 pages.

Triggs said the monks’ foundation is particularly excited by places such as the Garden City cathedral having a copy of the Bible because they want it to be an ecumenical and interfaith-oriented project.

“We are really fired up about the relations with the cathedral” and other non-Catholic institutions, he said. “We didn’t want this to be just a Catholic thing. We wanted a broader” participation.

Sniffen said he plans to use the cathedral’s volume in activities such as Bible study classes. He also is seeking to make his program ecumenical, inviting a rabbi and an imam to a Nov. 29 official kickoff of the Bible’s visitation. The free event is open to the public and will feature a lecture by Tim Ternes, the director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, where the original Saint John’s Bible is kept.

Sniffen said he got the idea to bring The Saint John’s Bible to Garden City when he first saw it at the Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital last year.

“I found it deeply moving,” he said.

He believed that bringing it to Long Island would attract people “who might not otherwise read the Bible at all. It would also deepen the experience of Scripture for those who are very acquainted with our sacred text.”

“To say that it is once in a generation is too weak,” Sniffen said of The Saint John’s Bible and the effort behind its creation. “It hasn’t happened in 500 years.”

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