Communion Of Dreams


The St John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Saint John’s Bible homepage.

This was no small project. The finished bible, produced on animal skin vellum, was in seven volumes. Each volume was two feet tall, and three feet wide when opened.

Recently Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri — Columbia asked me to archivally mount special dedication pages to six of the seven volumes in their Heritage Edition set of the book. Since this very limited edition (just 299 copies) is the full-size, fine art version which very few people will ever have a chance to see in person, I thought I’d take some pics and share them here, along with some notes and observations.

Each volume comes in its own conservation clamshell box:

As you can see, these things are huge. They’re so big, I couldn’t store them in my large safe — so I picked up a pair of the books at a time, did the mounting (which takes two days to do properly), then returned them to Special Collections.

And that style of clamshell box is a work of art itself. I occasionally do (smaller) ones for clients, and they can take three or four hours of labor for me. Doing one that size would take special equipment and workspace I just don’t have.

Here’s the first volume in the set, in gorgeous hand-bound red calfskin:

Click, then follow the link at the bottom, if you want to take a close look at the calligraphy.

 

Likewise.

And here’s the dedication page, along with the facing colophon:

The calligraphy for the dedication page was done by Diane M. von Arx, who was part of the team which worked on the St John’s Bible. If you look closely, you can see some of how I mounted the dedication pages: in the gutter there’s a slight discoloration from the Japanese Kozo tissue paper. The process of mounting the pages was easy: first mount the Kozo strip along the back of the dedication page, then allow to dry under restraint overnight; the next day, position the page and then paste out the Kozo ‘tab’, and secure it to the facing page and again allow to dry under restraint. This kind of mounting allows for a very natural movement of the page, as though it was part of the original binding, with minimal chance of the additional bulk of a page causing long-term problems. I also had to trim each dedication page to the specific dimensions of each respective book (they vary by a couple of millimeters — no surprise, given the size of the things and the fact that they were bound by hand).

And here are some additional images from the books, again available in full scale:

A fun project.

 

Jim Downey

If you are interested in supporting conservation work at Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri, here is their “Adopt a Book” page. And if you might be interested in sponsoring the last of the seven volumes of the St John’s Bible, you can contact MU Libraries Director of Development, Matt Gaunt.

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Fun with old book forensics.

I’m currently working on a two-volume set of a 1641 book, and noticed something interesting which I thought I’d share.

It’s fairly common to find minor errors in page numeration in books from this time period, and normally I don’t pay them much attention. They’re usually just a transposed number or something simple like that, a simple error made by a type-setter in a hurry or suffering from a hangover. But when I have to take a book apart for resewing (and usually other minor repairs to allow that), I try to be careful to make sure that I am putting them back together in the proper order, and that means checking and double-checking the order of the signatures.

A printing convention from this time period was to note the sequence of each section with an alphabet code at the bottom of the printed pages. The first section would be “A”, the second “B” and so forth. Then they’d go from “Z” to “AA” (or sometimes “Aa”) for as many cycles through the alphabet as necessary. This made it easy to make sure that the sections were in order when a bookbinder got involved, since oftentimes several different printers would be involved in the creation of a book, each one responsible for producing a set number of different sections (say section A through section FF, with another printer doing GG through CCC, etc).

Anyway, take a look at these two images:

Sections ZZz and AAaa

And:

The back page of ZZz and the front page of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 828 on the back of ZZz to 889 on the front page of AAaa.

Now, look at these two images from the second volume of the book:

Sections Zzz and AAaa.

And:

Back page of Zzz on top of the front of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 816 on the back of Zzz to 807 on the front page of AAaa.

There are other minor errors in the printing (which I’ve noted, since the book is in Latin I can’t speak to the text), but it is very interesting to find this kind of numeration problem at exactly the same break in sections in both books. I certainly can’t prove it, but my guess is that two different printers had the responsibility for the sections leading up to ZZz/Zzz and those starting with AAaa, and someone screwed up in telling them what the proper numbering was supposed to be for the pages they were to do.

Kinda fun, eh?

Have a good Easter weekend.

 

Jim Downey



Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.

 

Jim Downey



Before & after.

Most of the book conservation work I do is pretty nondescript, just workmanlike. After all, the intent isn’t to draw attention to my work, but to preserve as much of the original character and structure of the book as I can.

But now and again I get to do some ‘pretty’. And it’s nice to come across those again later, particularly when for whatever reason I’m feeling a little down. It’s a pleasant boost to my self esteem. Such it was yesterday when I was browsing through the Adopt-a-book program at MU’s Special Collections, and saw this entry:

Adopt-a-Book > Book Detail

M.T.C. Epistolae familiares accuratius recognitae

Author: Cicero, Marcus Tullius.     Published: Venetiis : Apud Aldum et Andream Socerum, 1512

Description: Take apart and resew, saving the label where possible. New leather binding

Condition / repair needed: This codex was printed by the legendary Aldine Press. It was printed during the life of Aldus Manutius, the founder of the press. The most famous dolphin and anchor printer’s mark is seen on the title page.

Thank You to Donor:J. Schweitzer, R. Drake and M. Correale

 

I’ll explain later why it was that I was browsing the site (it was a good reason, but I don’t want to get into it just yet).

As for why I was feeling down … No special reason, as I mentioned yesterday. Getting over the touch of the flu I had early in the week. A touch of the winter blahs. The mild feeling that I get in the middle of any project that I have bitten off more than I can chew and that I’m going to fail spectacularly.

So it’s nice to see tangible evidence that I actually can do something well.

Remember, Communion of Dreams is available for free download in the Kindle edition today through Sunday.

 

Jim Downey



Chutzpah.

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that sometimes I stop and consider the sort of chutzpah it takes to think that I should be mucking around with a 700 year-old book. That thought occurred to me following a session in the bindery working on the bible I have blogged about earlier. I had just done some work on it, then had to put everything into one of my presses and let it dry overnight, hoping that I had done the work properly. Hoping really hard.

What follows is a bit long, but might be of interest to some. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, the book came out well, though not entirely perfectly. You’ll see.

* * *

In my last post I had an image of the interior of the spine of the book. This one:

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That shows the paper liners adhered to the inside of the spine cover material.  If you look at the top of the image, you can see some of the damage which had happened to the book — basically, some tears in the vellum cover at the hinge joint.

Repairing vellum is a bit tricky. You can’t use too much moisture, because it can cause the vellum to warp and shrink, even become brittle. So carefully I removed all the old liner material, then selected some heavy kozo and applied a methyl-cellulose/PVA mix adhesive, allowing the adhesive to dry partially before mounting the kozo to the damaged areas. That’s when I put everything into the press and hoped for the best. Here’s how it looked when I took it out:

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One problem – in order to get the kozo mounted securely, I had to flatten the entire vellum spine, losing the nice shaping where it went over the sewing structure cords. We’ll come back to that.

On the textblock, I had to mount some new endpapers before I could add in the spine liners and hinging material. Fortunately, I had some nice handmade flax paper I made some 25 years ago which was a nice color tone match for the vellum. Here you can see it mounted:

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Then I was ready to mount the hinging material to the spine. I chose a very heavy type of kozo, which would be strong enough but wouldn’t add much bulk, and applied it so that it conformed to the sewing cords:

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Then I cut panels of another flax paper, and mounted those between the cords. Here is a pic when a couple of them have been mounted:

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When those were done and dried, the text block was ready to be mounted back into the cover. But I had two problems. One was the spine vellum had been flattened by mounting the repair kozo, as mentioned above. But there was also another problem, part of the reason why the book had become damaged in the intervening centuries: the vellum cover had shrunk slightly, and the text block had swollen slightly, with the result that the cover no longer fit properly.

How to make it fit?

Well, I had actually already done one thing: I had placed the text block into a heavy press and slowly compressed it over a period of several days. But that only did so much.

The other thing I decided to try was to force the spine to stretch a bit. I did this by VERY slightly dampening the vellum, then putting a jig in place which would slightly push the front and rear covers away from each other. At the same time, I had mounted some cords the same size as the ones on the text block, and positioned the same way. This jig went on the inside of the spine, and on the outside I used a piece of foamcore which would partially compress, making the vellum conform to the shape of the cords and spreading it just a tich. A couple times over the course of a couple days I swapped out the jigs, using a slightly larger one each time. Here’s the final set, with the spine of the finished book alongside to better help envision what I mean:

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That bought me about 3 or 4 mm of space. I worried about trying to stretch it any further. When I positioned the cover over the text block, the spine conformed perfectly, as you can see in the image above. I went ahead and pasted out the endpapers and mounted the text block into the cover.

Here’s how the pasted endpaper looked when everything dried:

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And here’s the fore-edge of the book in its cover:

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Yup — that right there is what is technically known as an “oops”. The cover doesn’t *quite* come around far enough, with perhaps 2 mm of the text block showing at the widest point. I hadn’t been able to stretch the cover (or compress the text block) enough.

However, the book was solid, and my interior repairs to the vellum damage turned out nearly perfect. Here’s a picture from earlier which shows the damage:

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See that crack on the spine at the left side? Actually, if you look closely, you can see there’s a couple different cracks. Well, here’s an image of the spine at the same point with my repairs:

20130707_151900

The cracks are still there, but they’re no longer a structural problem. The underlying kozo will now handle the structural forces. That should mean the cover will work as intended, and propagation of the cracks further down the spine should be stopped for at least a couple centuries.

It’s not a perfect repair, and that tempers any temptation I might have to inflate my ego any more. But it’s a pretty damned good repair, one I can take a measure of satisfaction with.

I can live with that.

 

Jim Downey



It’s not everyday …

It isn’t the oldest, rarest, or most interesting item I’ve ever worked on. But it’s not everyday that a 700+ year old book comes into my shop for conservation work. This one did yesterday:

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20130607_123435

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Here’s the official description of it, for those who might be interested:

Bible. Latin. [Biblia Latina] 1300. Bound in parchment ms. with neumic notation over boards ; leaf [103] torn with part of 1 column wanting; small stain on p. 1 partly hides incipit; trimmed, headings mostly lost. Prehumanistic minuscule script; rubricated. Lectionary? with different pen on final 2 leaves. Contents: Prol. in libros Salomonis — Proverbia — Ecclesiastes — Canticum canticorum — Sapientia — Ecclesiasticus — Joshua — Isaias –Jeremias — Ezechiel — Daniel — Osee — Joel — Amos — Abdias — Jonas –Michaeus — Nahum — Habacuc — Sophonias — Aggaeus — Zacharias — Malachias — Job – Judith — Esther — [Novum Testamentum]. Cover is a manuscript leaf of a parchment page with nuemes and a Gothic script with red initial letters from about about the same time.

 

It’s been a while since I shared any images from my conservation work, so thought I would.

In other news: still plugging along on St. Cybi’s Well. It’s going well.

Have a great weekend!

 

Jim Downey