Master calligrapher reveals artistic process behind work on Saint John’s Bible

March 19, 2019

Diane von Arx discussed her work on the Saint John’s Bible at a recent talk at Mount Saint Mary College.

Diane von Arx discussed her work on the Saint John’s Bible at a recent talk at Mount Saint Mary College. 

 Her renowned skill has taken calligrapher and graphic artist Diane von Arx on a lifelong artistic journey, but it was her work on the majestic Saint John’s Bible, the first hand-lettered and hand-illuminated Bible created in more than 500 years, that has become the defining moment of her illustrious career.
In her recent presentation at Mount Saint Mary College, “Making a Masterpiece: The Saint John’s Bible Through an Artist’s Lens,” von Arx explored the role of the artist in the creation of this one-of-a-kind tome, and discussed how an international group of artists, scribes, and theologians achieved such a massive and complex undertaking.
As a member of the artistic team for the Saint John’s Bible, von Arx and many others used medieval inks, materials, and methods to create the masterpiece over a period of 15 years. Commissioned by the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey, it was made using quill pens and special inks comprised of condensed candle smoke and egg yolk. The Bible contains 160 major hand-gilded illuminations that encompass many artistic styles, often mixing modern motifs with traditional religious imagery. (Mount Saint Mary College owns the full seven-volume Heritage Edition set of the Saint John’s Bible, a fine art reproduction that captures the original down to the smallest details.)
Under the direction of Donald Jackson, world famous calligrapher and senior scribe to the British royal family, von Arx would receive suggestions for her art. But ultimately, she was given quite a bit of freedom on the project, she noted.
“I would do the sketches and send them over, via email, then we’d talk about them,” von Arx said. “What Donald would always say is ‘you might do this or you might do that, but in the end, it’s yours.’ That was humbling, but very frightening.”
Von Arx was assigned to work on pages of the Saint John’s Bible that many other artists had already contributed to. She noted that this is just as harrowing as it might sound: one wrong move might destroy not only her own calligraphy, but also the countless hours of work done by her teammates. Her steady hand and careful approach served her well, and the finished product speaks to the team’s dedication, she said.
 Diane Von Arx performs live hand-lettering sessions at Mount Saint Mary College.

Diane Von Arx performs live hand-lettering sessions at Mount Saint Mary College.

Von Arx is passionate about the craft of making letters in new and innovative ways, using contemporary materials and techniques while respecting traditional letter forms. Interacting and engaging with viewers of the calligraphic process has convinced her that calligraphy is indeed a “performance art.” With this in mind, von Arx shared her skills with the college community the day after her talk through two live calligraphy sessions. Students, faculty, and staff requested a name of their choice, and von Arx hand-lettered a keepsake for them. With her work projected on a screen above, onlookers enjoyed watching the words come to life.
With nearly five decades of experience in the creative field as a graphic designer, von Arx has taught calligraphy and design workshops throughout the U.S. and internationally. Currently the owner of DESIGNS, a lettering art studio, her clients include Target, 3M, University of Minnesota, St. John’s University, Ameriprise Financial, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and many others.
For nearly ten years, von Arx worked as a production and lettering artist at Hauck & Associates, a package design studio in Minneapolis, where she created the original lettering for General Mills products such as Trix, Count Chocula, and Nature Valley Granola.
In addition to her work on the Saint John’s Bible, von Arx also designed the titling for The Word Made Flesh, the 2005 CINE Golden Eagle Award winning film which was produced at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. to promote the project.
Von Arx holds an associate of arts degree from the Jefferson School of Commercial Art in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Her work has been featured in numerous publications and exhibited in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In addition, she has authored three calligraphy workbooks for beginners.
The talk was made possible by Mount Saint Mary College’s prestigious Samuel D. Affron Memorial Lecture Series and the Affron family. Jerome S. Affron, a former Mount trustee, established the Samuel D. Affron Memorial Lecture Series in honor of his father in 1982. A native of Kingston, Samuel D. Affron served on the Board of Education in Beacon for many years.