This image of Wisdom as seen in a mirror has an astonishing effect on me: when I look at it I see myself in these pages. As my Cherokee friend said when she saw it, “It’s the Grandmother!” The revolutionary thing about this image of an old woman, framed by phases of the moon, is that it appears in a Bible. She is illustrating Wisdom as a manifestation of the Divine Feminine, as She appears in parts of the Old Testament. I capitalize all of these words as a mark of respect, and could wish that the words Wisdom and She were also capitalized in the book as I have written them here, but they are not, because this book is a Catholic Bible.
The book is the Saint John’s Bible, which is shown in these photos taken from my own trade edition. Last week I went with some scribe friends to see the Heritage Edition in the special collections of Santa Clara University. That edition is reproduced at the actual size and uses foil stamping to represent the gilding that is on the original manuscript. Its size is quite impressive: two by three feet when opened. This volume is called Wisdom Books, and includes some books that at one time or another were considered Apocrypha, the “hidden away” books of the Bible.
You can read more about this project at the Saint John’s Bible website , and also at the Library of Congress online exhibition. Suffice to say, this has caused great excitement in the calligraphy community for the last ten years. I’ve been fortunate to see some of the original pages at a calligraphy conference, and to have studied with one of its illuminators, Suzanne Moore. So I have had a special interest in this manuscript.
My visit to this book was reverent, but not in the usual way. This holy book is not mine. My relationship with the religion of my fathers is problematic. The text is tough for me to read: there are heinous things written about women in this book, and I have stayed away from it for many years for exactly that reason. This religion has much to answer for: the pope’s recent statement on the ineffective use of condoms to halt the spread of AIDS in Africa; the priestly pedophile scandals, the utter exclusion of women from the priesthood. I do not have to read far in these books to find language denouncing woman as the source of all sin and death in the world, detailed instructions for how to control wives and daughters, how to whip children, and many many descriptions of God as dominator. Reading it can really make me feel ill.
But the images! Images open up the possibility of poetry in these texts and have drawn me into reading and discovering traces of the old Goddess worship woven throughout the pages. Wisdom is anciently referred to as feminine: in both Hebrew (Hokhmah) and Greek (Sophia) the gender of the noun is feminine. Historically Goddess is symbolized by the Tree of Life, which is beautifully shown in this book. And though the church fathers tried to reframe the Song of Solomon as a love story between God and his chosen people of Israel, I’m not fooled. This is a beautiful description of the Sacred Marriage, an ancient ritual going back to Egyptian and Babylonian times, when the king of the land and priestess of the Great Mother consecrated the fertility of the land with sacred sex. Yes, this really is erotic poetry!
In this, my favorite image, the moons (gilded in palladium on the original page) drift down diagonally across the page spread and become the communion chalice, abstractly seen from above. Surrounding it are fruits and bounteous symbols of earth’s abundance, and two ancient goddess images. These clay images have been found by the thousands in Old Europe, and many are incised with markings that can only be seen as a kind of writing. These figures are the source of the first writing that has continued to inspire my work for several years, and seeing them represented so lovingly in the Bible has made me feel . . . well, included. Apparently the directive to the illuminators was to make images that had never been seen in the Bible, and this certainly qualifies.
The Saint John’s Bible Committee on Illumination and Text was aiming for universal, cross-cultural and inclusive language and imagery, and the representation of many spiritual traditions, both ancient and modern. For this reason, perhaps this Bible will be about healing and reconciliation, rather than alienation, domination and power. It is a good first step in the right direction. When I see these images I have a very different feeling than I have when God is presented to me as a punishing Father.
The inclusiveness of the Saint John’s Bible is a radical thing in the Christian community. These Benedictine monks have been brave to allow such feminine images into the Bible. There is still vehement sentiment against feminine divinity in any way, shape or form, as shown last week by the sudden dismissal of Ruth Kolpack, a “pastoral associate,” who had devoted over thirty years of her life to a Catholic church in Madison, Wisconsin. She was summarily dismissed by the bishop who suddenly noticed that her master’s thesis asked the church to become more inclusive, and to “free God language from captivity.” Thanks to Carol Christ over at Alive Mind and Spirit for this news and links.
At times like this I want to invite all the women, and the men who love them, to come and dance in a circle under the full moon with us. I know that some of these people have been awakened and are trying to change the institutions of patriarchal religion from within. This is very difficult, for the punishment can be severe. If they leave their churches and synagogues and mosques, we will welcome them into our circles where they will find images of female divinity that are powerful and loving. As the dancing letters say on the last page of this book: “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of Her; those who hold Her fast are called happy.”
This post was picked up by the Friends of Calligraphy Alphabet journal and published in the summer of 2009, in San Francisco, California. You can download the complete article here. Another essay exploring “Sacred Script” is available here.