illuminating the scriptures

The university I attend held a series of lectures this week centered around a reproduction of the modern illuminated St. John’s Bible that our campus is hosting over the 2015-16 school year.


I was able to attend several of these events, and most of the speakers were accompanied by one of the staff interpreters.As a matter of fact, I often found myself paying more attention to the lectures through the mediated means of the interpreter’s signs than to the spoken lecture itself.

Two things I noticed particularly from these lectures were especially fascinating to see interpreted in ASL.

  • A conversation being reenacted. One of the speakers’s presentations incorporated an imagined dialogue between the Biblical characters of Eve and the tempting Serpent in the Garden of Eden. I was able to watch a demonstration of contrastive structure in action as the interpreter switched back and forth with the alternating voices. The facial markers accompanying the story also brought the narrative to life, just as much as listening to the speaker’s voice changes.
  • An interesting anecdote. During one of the presentations, a professor made reference to the original manuscript of the illuminated text, which has not been bound yet, saying that if all the pages were bound into one volume, the text would be almost three hundred pounds! He then recounted incidents of monks being killed by large old illuminated manuscripts falling from high shelves in various monasteries. The interpreter’s gestures to accompany these stories were particularly forceful and vivid, and made the anecdotes even more humorous to me.

I found an interesting analogy to the idea of illuminating scripture in the work that an interpreter does. Just as the beautiful artwork in ancient Bibles served the purpose of communicating the Word’s message to those who could not read the Latin text of the Bibles, ASL creates an image for those who cannot hear the spoken Word.

This comparison is not at all intended to equate the Deaf community with the Middle-Ages people for whom illuminations were intended, but rather to compare the two forms of art used to convey the message of the Bible to every person, no matter who they are or what their language may be.

More than just being utilitarian in explaining the text,  illuminations and American Sign Language are beautiful and unique means of communicating the ideas they represent. Neither are exact copies of the words they accompany, rather they are full, living images of the meaning of the texts. Just like poring over the gilded pages of an ancient book or basking in the multi-hued light of a stained-glass window, watching an ASL interpreter signing a Chapel message or passage of scripture gives me the sense of being in the presence of living art.sign-language-translator

The harmony of beauty and meaning that the illuminations and ASL embody is one of the fullest and most amazing ways that art can be used to proclaim God’s Word. The Bible, seen through these means, is more than a collection of words that are at least two thousand years old, often more. Brought to life by illuminations and interpretations, the stories of Scripture can be more fully appreciated as their living, relevant selves.


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