Book Review: “Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of the Saint John’s Bible,” Michael Patella

WordAndImageDonald P. Richmond:

With a new millennium fast approaching, the monks at Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, asked themselves about what they could do to celebrate this event and honor God. In keeping with their monastic history, they decided that they needed to commission an illuminated Bible, written and illuminated entirely by hand on parchment. In doing so, they wanted to “find something that could draw upon the fifteen-hundred-year-old Benedictine tradition while simultaneously vivifying the Christian imagination in its service to the future” (p. xi). Their stated goals, among others, were “to glorify God’s word” and “to foster the arts” (p. xi).

Art for art’s sake is a dubious enterprise. Art in the service of Liturgy can be exceedingly dangerous. Utilizing the arts for liturgical purposes poses theological, aesthetic, historic and contemporary difficulties that cannot be superficially resolved. Upon deciding to commission an Illuminated Bible, the monks at Saint John’s Abbey determined to take the more dangerous path. And, in spite of some of my own hesitations, I am very glad they did.

Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of the Saint John’s Bible examines the principles used in preparing and providing a new Bible for a new millennium. Patella’s use of the word “hermeneutics,” as might be imagined, roots the Visio-Divina of The Saint John’s Bible to the ancient monastic model of Lectio-Divina. As such, and as clearly stated in the text, it embraces an ancient / future approach. Patella’s text is broadly divided into four, very capably presented (and beautifully illustrated), parts:

Part 1, “Word and Image: A Hermeneutical Matrix,” discusses the use of art as metaphor and allegory. Briefly retracing the history of Christian art, and iconography specifically, the author asserts the philosophical / theological premises that drove the entire Saint John’s Bible project. Having a very high view of image, Patella asserts that the use of art throughout the Saint John’s Bible is to help people personally and communally “connect” with the text. Consequently, this Bible is seen as sacramental. Its intention is to provide “a full sensory reading of the Bible” (p.18).

Part 2, “Why This [NRSV] English Text,” provides a competent apologetic for using the NRSV of the Bible. Being a theological conservative myself, I hesitated about the Saint John’s Bible embrace of the NRSV. Nevertheless, while my hesitation remains, the author provides a thorough and convincing set of reasons for using this particular version.

Part 3, “The Saint John’s Bible: Part of an Artistic and Monastic Lineage” (written by Dr. Benjamin C. Tilghman), provides a very interesting consideration of “The Tradition of Great Medieval Bibles” that students of art, monasticism and the Bible will find most engaging and insightful. Tilghman insists, as one example, that The Saint John’s Bible is “no mere antiquarian exercise” (p.51). What it is, stated later, is a matter of careful and prayerful consideration by those who work with or are concerned about the intersection of liturgy and the arts. Of course, if we study Christian history, these considerations are of utmost importance.

Part 4 is the “Hermeneutical Guide” to The Saint John’s Bible — its guiding images, rationale, and commentary on the books from Genesis through Revelation. This section, of itself, is worth the price of the book.

Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible is an important text that comments and instructs upon the most essential and influential book in the world. Although it requires careful and prayerful thought, and will challenge some “conservative” ideas, Patella’s text is essential reading for Pastors, Liturgists, Catechists and anyone interested in how theology and arts intersect.


The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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