Preserving Ancient Books the Benedictine Way
(along with some help from 21st-century technology)
An “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible” lecture
Santa Fe (Feb. 28, 2012)—Paper, vellum and ink weren’t made to last forever, and the ravages of time threaten to turn ancient religious texts into scraps and dust. The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University in Minnesota is stopping the clock for thousands of such works using the modern-day magic of computer digitization.
On Sunday, March 25, at 2 pm, Father Columba Stewart, OSB, executive director of the Hill Museum, discusses efforts to rescue manuscript collections from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jerusalem, Ethiopia and India. His talk, “Endangered Texts: Preserving Ancient Books the Benedictine Way in the 21st Century,” will be in the museum auditorium. It’s free with admission; Sundays are free to NM residents.
The event is part of the programming series for the exhibits Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible and Contemplative Landscape.
Since medieval times, Benedictine monks have been dedicated to education and the power of the book. They hand-copied manuscripts of classical authors, along with the Bible, and preserved valuable books that would otherwise have been lost. As part of that goal, the Hill Museum has gathered and carefully digitized thousands of manuscripts, which are now being catalogued and made available online.
“It’s Benedictines doing a traditional Benedictine thing, but with modern technology,” Stewart said.
Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned The Saint John’s Bible as a major example of that commitment—the first handwritten and illuminated Bible from the Benedictine Order in 500 years. Forty-four of its pages are on display in Illuminating the Word, which recently had its run extended through December 30, 2012.
In 1965, the Abbey and University created what came to be the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library as an effort to preserve priceless manuscripts held in European monasteries and libraries. Work soon spread beyond monasteries and beyond Europe. The holdings now number more than 90,000 manuscripts on microfilm and 35,000 in digital format. The Eastern Mediterranean initiative began in 2003 as part of an effort to preserve manuscripts in parts of the world beset by turmoil and uncertainty: Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and India. Altogether, the library’s collection includes substantial holdings from Germany and Austria (including the National Library in Vienna), Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, England, Malta, Ethiopia, and more recently the Middle East and India. Virtually every subject of knowledge—theology, philosophy, law (canon and civil), music, art, science and medicine, the mechanical arts and the liberal arts—is reflected.
Stewart serves as a professor of theology and has spoken throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. His publications include Cassian: The Monk (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Orbis Books, 1998).
The New Mexico History Museum is the newest addition to a campus that includes the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States; Fray Angélico Chávez History Library; Palace of the Governors Photo Archives; the Press at the Palace of the Governors; and the Native American Artisans Program. Located at 113 Lincoln Ave., in Santa Fe, NM, it is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.