"Wisdom Woman"

Wisdom of Solomon 8:17 -10:13, Donald Jackson (artist, scribe), Copyright 2006, from St. John's Bible. ( National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America / June 5, 2014)

Even people who are not religious will be fascinated by the new exhibit on the walls at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven: pages from the Saint John's Bible with an illuminated manuscript that took 13 years to create.

The Saint John's Bible brings the pre-printing press concept of hand-written books into the 21st century. A team of calligraphers between 1998 and 2011 wrote out the Good Book on parchment made of calf skin with turkey- and goose-quill pens using ink made of Chinese candle soot, in an elegant but easily readable typeface especially created for the project. Illuminations in lively colors, as well as gold and platinum leaf, decorate the script, vibrantly jumping off the pages even in a gallery dimly lit to preserve the fragile work.

But the real glory of the Saint John's Bible is its illustrations, which turn Bible stories into vivid semi-abstracted images that draw on multicultural contemporary influences. Adam and Eve have dark skin and African features, their images inspired by photos of residents of southwest Ethiopia, to reflect current scientific beliefs that mankind's earliest ancestors originated in Africa. "We always view Adam and Eve as Europeans, Caucasians," said museum spokesman Peter Sonski. "This is more realistic."

The glowing silkscreen "Wisdom Woman" who illustrates the Wisdom of Solomon is modeled after a photo of a middle-aged Palestinian woman. According to the exhibit's catalog, the feminity of wisdom is based on a passage from that book, "For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty."

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations, done in holographic foil, are pictured against a flaming orange sky and a background of oil rigs, to show that oil exploration devastates the land and leads to bloody conflict. Scattered among the oil rigs are triangular radiation-warning signs, an observation that like the Biblical apocalypse, nuclear fallout leaves people with nowhere to hide.

Other artworks don't shy away from the more gloomy aspects of the Bible. A depiction of Queen Esther, showing the duality of her character, is accented with an image of Haman hanging from the gallows.

The story of Creation in Genesis is composed of seven vertical strips, starting with black-and-red chaos, moving through planets and stars, then the creation of man inspired by Australian Aboriginal rock paintings, and the luminous gold of the seventh day. A black bird, representing the Biblical messenger ravens, flies over all. That same black bird can be seen in the frontispiece from Ecclesiastes, flying among gold and platinum bars signifying God.

Menorahs are a recurring decorative theme, as are animals and plants, and sketchy, almost ghostly architectural images floating about.

The Saint John's Bible is 1,127 pages long. The New Haven exhibit features 68 24-by-20-inch pages, which will be switched out periodically through the exhibit's run to protect the pages from too much exposure.

The Bible was commissioned at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., and was created by a team of more than a dozen workers in Wales led by Donald Jackson. Jackson, a calligrapher for the British royal family, had a lifelong dream of creating an illuminated manuscript. The text is from the New Revised Standard Version.

Bits of Hebrew and Greek are dotted throughout the margins of the pages. Sometimes, the calligraphers made mistakes and left out a few words and didn't realize it until it was too late. Rather than having the calligraphers throw out the page and start again, the designers devised charming flourishes in the margins to correct the errors, such as a little bird or a ring-tailed monkey pointing to where the missing words should go.

"ILLUMINATING THE WORD: THE SAINT JOHN'S BIBLE" will be at Knights of Columbus Museum, 1 State St. in New Haven, until Nov. 2. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. Details: www.kofcmuseum.org.