Mount talk explores Jewish artistic influence on the Saint John’s Bible

October 20, 2017

arc Michael Epstein discusses Jewish influence on the art of the Saint John’s Bible at a recent Mount Saint Mary College talk.

Marc Michael Epstein discusses Jewish influence on the art of the Saint John’s Bible at a recent Mount Saint Mary College talk.


Marc Michael Epstein, a professor of religion and visual culture at Vassar College, presented “The Saint Johns’ Bible: Jews, Christians, and Why Art Matters” on Thursday, October 19 at Mount Saint Mary College. 

Donald Jackson is the creator of the magnificent Saint John’s Bible – the only handwritten and illuminated Bible produced in more than 500 years. Epstein revealed that throughout the masterwork, Jackson adopts, adapts, and repurposes themes and images from the Hebrew Bible and, in some cases, Jewish visual culture. 

For example, “Jackson chose to use an image common in medieval manuscripts made for Jews – manuscripts of the menorah,” Epstein said. 

But that shouldn’t be surprising, he added: “The Christian scriptures he illuminates…often depend theologically upon the Hebrew Bible.”  

Using medieval inks, materials, and methods, an international team of artists and calligraphers worked for 15 years to create the seven volumes that comprise the Saint John’s Bible. Commissioned by the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey, it was created 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 recently acquired 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. A limited edition of 299 copies, the Mount is now in possession of four volumes of copy number 133. Subsequent volumes will be received over the course of the next two years. They will be displayed in the Mount’s Kaplan Family Library and Learning Center, under the care of library director Barbara Petruzzelli and her staff. 

The Mount's Saint John's Bible events are coordinated by Derek Sanderson, assistant librarian for Instruction Services. Those wishing to view the Bible can contact Sanderson at 

Epstein was Vassar’s first director of Jewish Studies. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, received his PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His 2011 book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of the year. Another of his books, Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Manuscript Illumination, was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award in 2015.

The event was sponsored by the Kaplan FaDerek Sanderson, assistant librarian for Instruction Servicesmily Library and Learning Center and the Mount’s Catholic and Dominican Institute (CDI). CDI promotes the Mount’s heritage of St. Dominic, advances the Dominican charism of study and service, provides a forum for discussion of contemporary ethical issues, and enhances Catholic and Jewish dialogue. The Institute welcomes persons of varied faiths and acknowledges different religious traditions as essential to the college’s intellectual and spiritual life.