By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — For 40 years, Christmas in Christ Chapel has been a celebration of the faith and fine arts found at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Thousands of Gustavus alums gather in the majestic chapel that’s the centerpiece of the campus, watching hundreds of Gustavus students display their talents.
There was orchestral music produced by Gustavus students, choral performances by Gustavus students, dance provided by Gustavus students and works of art from Collegeville.
Collegeville? As in St. John’s?
Minnesota’s top private colleges tend to have intense rivalries on and off the sports fields in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. But Gustavus Chaplain Rachel Larson laughed and made a distinction when asked about the use of a rival’s art in her school’s tradition-laden holiday event: The art came courtesy of the St. John’s Abbey, which is technically not St. Johns University.
“It’s not theirs, really,” Larson said of the Johnnies.
Besides, the artwork used in the five weekend performances of Christmas in Christ Chapel is extraordinary. It comes from the St. John’s Bible, a contemporary work created using medieval techniques — the first handwritten and illustrated Bible commissioned by the Benedictine monks since the printing press was invented more than 500 years ago.
“It’s just so beautiful. So beautiful,” Larson said.
The original calfskin pages of the massive Bible are at St. John’s, but 299 full-size copies of the seven-volume Bible were authorized and it’s one of those Heritage Edition copies that was loaned to Gustavus for Christmas in Christ Chapel. Readings during the performances came from the St. John’s Bible and the illustrations — known as illuminations — were constantly projected on screens.
The calligraphy on the 1,150 pages — done with quills made from goose, swan and turkey feathers — is striking. But the illuminations — which included the use of 24-carat gold to represent the divine — are eye-popping, Larson said. Beyond the interesting techniques used by the artists, there is also endless creativity to be found.
The manger scene in the Bible doesn’t include the baby Jesus, just a shaft of intense gold connecting the crib to the heavens. And the ox in the illumination is based on a prehistoric drawing from a cave in France, she said. Look close at another illumination showing Christ’s genealogy going back to Abraham and you’ll find the double helixes of DNA incorporated into the work.
“There’s such a rich treasure in this Bible,” Larson said.
Along with its use in the Christmas in Christ Chapel services, six of the seven volumes were on display on campus for three days and one of the calligraphers spoke to Gustavus classes.
When Larson asked about getting a visit from the Bible, a St. John’s official didn’t hesitate.
“He said, ‘Hey, it’s meant to be shared,’” she said.
The Heritage Edition is also available for purchase, and it sounds like Larson wouldn’t mind seeing one of the 299 copies get a permanent home in St. Peter. But she laughed about the prospect because of the Heritage Edition’s $145,000 price tag: “So if you know any big donors . ...”