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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Three weeks in Wales, Part 8: before history.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

We spent the bulk of Sunday driving to Llandysul in SW Wales. There we’d made arrangements to stay with an online friend of Martha’s.

Monday we spent mostly in prehistoric Britain, starting with Castell Henllys. This is an iron age hillfort which has been partially reconstructed, using solid archeological research done on the site. Since the roundhouses have been rebuilt right on the original foundations, you get a real sense of what life in the village must have been like. You can see it, feel it, smell it. They’ve done a remarkable job in building the structures and constructing the everyday items which would have been inside them.

Typical traps between the defensive berms: sharp rocks, pot holes, mires.

 

Inside defensive berm.

 

 

What you see as you come through the defensive perimeter.

 

Nice to see how the thatch around the vent hole was replaced recently.

 

Common house and animal pen.

 

Entrance to the chieftain’s hut.

 

Interior roof support structure.

 

Simple loom.

 

Grindstone.

 

Firepit.

 

Cooking gear.

 

Decorative end of log seat.

Interior wall.

 

‘Bedroom.’

 

Interior decoration.

Pole lathe.

 

Storage/work shed.

 

Fish basket.

 

Roof detail.

 

Granary.

 

We decided to have lunch at a local pub, then I wanted to make another stop at Craig Rhosyfelin (from Part 3), to take some additional images for my own reference in working on St Cybi’s Well:

Approaching the point.

 

And from there we went exploring — driving off into an area we hadn’t been before, just looking to see what we might find on the map. And we wound up at Gors Fawr, a wonderful remote neolithic stone circle. With the clouds hanging low and covering the nearby mountain tops, you couldn’t ask for a more atmospheric scene:

The whole circle.

 

The ‘avenue stones.’

 

Lastly, on our way back to Llandysul, we stopped by the Hywel Dda Centre in Whitland. We had been to the Centre previously, but only when it wasn’t open. This time we had a chance to chat with a charming docent, who shared his enthusiasm for Welsh history. And of professional interest, we got to see the excellent facsimile copy of ‘Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda‘:

It was a delightful day.

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 2: Places forgotten, places remembered.

Part 1 can be found here.

We drove over from Avebury and crossed into Wales, headed up the Wye River valley north of Chepstow. You get your first glimpse of the abbey as you come around a bend in the road, something like this:

Yeah, Tintern Abbey, another World Heritage Site. One of those places where you can feel almost a thousand years of history surround you, wrap you up, hold you close. To walk in that space is to somehow find a part of yourself you never knew was missing. There are a number of places in Wales which make me feel that way. Probably why I keep going back there.

Others in our party experienced the same thing:

After a time we left the Abbey, and I begged an indulgence of the group to visit a small site nearby: St Anne’s Well, Trellech. Everyone was game, even though it wasn’t someplace we had discussed previously. But my wife (who is an excellent navigator, and had done extensive research & preparation for our trip), looked at her maps and said “I don’t know how to get there.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I do.”

See, I had been there multiple times before … through the technological miracle of Google Streetview. I was fairly sure that I could get us there without reference to a map.

And I did:

St Anne’s Well, also know as the “Virtuous Well”.

I wanted to visit the site because there’s a small but fairly important scene which takes place at the well in St Cybi’s Well. Here’s a bit of it:

Darnell looked from her, back at the well. Here and there on the short wall surrounding it were small objects. And hanging from the limbs of the tree above it were dozens of different strips of cloth in varying hues and conditions, some worn to just loose fibers. He nodded towards those, asked, “What’s with the rags?”

“Hanging from the whitethorn? They’re called clouties. It’s an old tradition for those suffering an illness: dip a length of cloth in the water of the well, then tie it to the tree. As the cloth slowly wears away, so will the illness.” She sipped at her own mug. “The believing makes it so.”

You might be able to see some of the clouties in the image above. In this one, you can at least easily see the white strip I hung in the tree after immersing it in the well water:

We drove on to our B&B accommodation in Cardiff.

The next morning we decided on a pair of nearby castles for the day’s enjoyment: Caerphilly and Coch. As a bonus, Caerphilly was playing host to a couple of dragons …

Dewi and Dwynwen, and their eggs (since hatched).

We’ve been to Caerphilly previously, but it is always a great place to visit. And this was the first real castle for my sister and her family, who were impressed with the size and scope of the fortress, even though it had been slighted during the English Civil War.

Out for a stroll along the top of one of the towers.

The unusual companion castle to Cearphilly is Castell Coch. Unusual, because while the two share some history (having both been built by Baron Gilbert de Clare, lord of Glamorgan, in the late 13th century), in many ways Coch is the antithesis of Caerphilly. Where Caerphilly was a massive fortress designed to use the latest military architecture of the time (concentric layers of defense and extensive water bodies), Coch is a small private castle, barely sufficient as a defensive residence. And where Caerphilly still stands largely intact with its 13th century design, Coch was rebuilt extensively in the 19th century to be a delightful (if somewhat bizarre) Victorian fantasy of what a medieval castle would be like:

But still, a nice place for a stroll …

… or a few moments rest.

We left SE Wales, and headed west, to our B&B in Kidwelly.

 

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 1: Not there yet.

From May 13th through June 5th, my wife and I enjoyed a great vacation in the UK, mostly spent in Wales. For the first couple of weeks of the trip my sister and her family joined us.

It was a good chance to get away from things a bit. Spending time enjoying Wales always seems to help me clear my head and get some perspective, even when I don’t necessarily feel like I have pressing matters to ponder. In the coming couple of weeks I’m going to share some of my thoughts and experiences, and probably a fair number of images, from that trip. It’s not going to be like previous travelogues I’ve done, but I hope it will nonetheless be enjoyable. And for those who have been patiently waiting for me to finish St Cybi’s Well, there will be some particular treats in visiting locations in that book.

So, take a little trip with me …

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

London is one of the world’s great cities. And even though as a general rule I don’t like cities, I can usually spend up to a week at a time in London without starting to go stir-crazy.

Here are some quick random images to explain why:

From a recent mosaic near the Millennium Bridge. Not exactly a celebration of peasant revolts, but also not really a criticism of them, either.

 

Take a walk on the wild side.

 

Dr Hoo?

 

The Tate Modern also had a completely magical audio sculpture in the Turbine Hall by Bruce Nauman which I and my brother-in-law Steven thoroughly enjoyed.

And of course, to have a full London experience, you have to have at least one good evening in a traditional pub …

Steven, my sister Celeste, and their daughter Haley.

 

The next morning we drove to the south coast to Kingly Vale, where we enjoyed the 400 acres of ancient uncut forest in the rain:

Yew know what I mean?

That evening we made it to Salisbury, and did some sight-seeing in the area the next day:

Yeah, one of the four copies known to exist. I was happy to see that they had upgraded both their security and their presentation from the last time I saw this copy.

And of course, a bit north of there is this old place:

Yeah, Stonehenge.

 

Crows don’t care about the rules.

Slip inside …

 

That last image is the same one I envisioned as the approach Darnell takes in this excerpt from St Cybi’s Well:

As he crossed the earthen ditch which surrounded the stones some 20 meters out, following the usual paved walking path, he noticed that the shaping of the sound somehow changed. Perhaps it was the mass of bodies crowding in around the stones. But it seemed less to be coming from one particular place, and more like it was just coming up from the ground all around him. Then he stepped off the path, and onto the grass, and he could feel the sound more than hear it. It strummed through his heels, up his legs, vibrations caressing his entire body. It was the springiness, the resonance, which he had felt at St David’s, but infinitely stronger.

Stronger, and shared. Shared, he knew, by every person who walked this ground. By every person who had ever walked this ground. It was as though the earth itself were a drum, and this the taut, shimmering skin which they skittered across.

Slowly he made his way into the circle, almost in a daze. Others moved past and around him, making contact, sharing a smile, a laugh, tears. He had never before been this close to the stones, had never come on those rare occasions when the site was open this way. They seemed impossibly tall, impossibly old. He stepped past the first great upright before him, then paused, and gingerly reached out to touch it. Cold stone, rough weathered, aged lichens. A woman standing next to him had her eyes closed, the palms of her hands also on the stone, and for a moment he felt her mind there, the contact of lovers sharing a glimpse of the eternal. It caught his breath, he stepped back, turned in slight embarrassment and stepped further into the circle. Further into the crowd.

Now the press of people was greater. There were people everywhere, holding hands, praying, chanting, caressing. They were on the fallen stones, pressed up against the standing sarsens, moving. He felt himself drawn further in, pulled in by the sound vibrations filling the space, which became deeper and stronger with every step. He passed the inner sarsen, stood there in the inner circle, the sanctum sanctorum, the Garbha griha, the sacred center of everything.

Around one of the fallen stones there in the center was a space, an opening in the crowd. Everyone peered in, watching a woman in white robes. She was kneeling beside the stone, but not in prayer. Kneeling so that she was at the proper height to reach out and strike the great stone. To strike it with stone-headed mallets. And with each strike, the stone gave a deep, resounding gonging which echoed from the earth, then spread out from the center to touch everything and everyone in a growing, encompassing spiral.

For the third time that day he felt himself grow woozy, felt the world spin. He reached out a hand to steady himself, looking for another person, or another stone, for stability. And he touched one of the blue stones, one of the much smaller uprights which had come from Wales. From Craig Rhosyfelin. It was warm to the touch. Warm, and welcoming.

 

As if that experience wasn’t enough for one day, we also went to Avebury, *another* World Heritage Site:

Yeah, they really are that big.

 

Yeah, really.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

Seriously.

And in addition to the old stones, they have a somewhat newer church there:

Though it’s still old by our standards:

And while that wasn’t yet the end of the day, it was the end of our trip outside of Wales.

Next: the third World Heritage Site in one day. Can you guess what it will be?

 

Jim Downey



Happy (re)Birthday to me …

A year ago yesterday, I met my cardiologist for the first time. After looking over the results of my stress echo-cardiogram and discussing what it possibly meant with me, he said that I needed to have a cardiac cath procedure sooner rather than later. Since he’s one of the premier heart surgeons in the mid-west, and always in demand, I expected that this meant I’d get put on a waiting list and have it done sometime in the next month or so when there was an opening in his schedule.

I nodded. “OK, when?”

He looked down at my chart, then back at me.  “What are you doing tomorrow?”

Good thing I don’t panic easily.

* * *

Well, as I recounted a few days later, the procedure went smoothly, though longer than usual, with the end result that I had a couple of stents placed to correct a congenital heart defect. It took a while for all the ramifications of what I had lived with, and what it meant to have it corrected, to really sink in. Part of that was coming to full understanding of just how close to death I had come, because even the slightest amount of atherosclerosis, even the tiniest little blood clot, would have triggered a massive heart attack.

But now it’s been a year. I saw the cardiologist several times over that year, most recently a few weeks ago. And, basically, I’m now past it all. I’m no longer taking any blood thinners, I don’t need to take any real precautions, I only need to check in with the cardiologist once a year or if I notice a problem. If I’m smart, I’ll continue to get regular exercise (I now walk three miles each morning, and get in plenty of additional exercise doing yard work and such) and be a little careful about my diet, but those are things which any man my age should probably do.

So, basically, today’s the first anniversary of my rebirth.

And it feels good.

 

Jim Downey

 



A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:

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That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:

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This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:

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Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:

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Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:

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Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:

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That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:

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Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:

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Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:

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Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:

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Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:

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Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:

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It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey



Caring for demented America.

The eighty-something man fumbled with the pocket knife he had carried his whole life. His hands trembled with age, rage, and fear, but if the hulking stranger refused to leave his house, well, then by God he’d force the man to leave!

The stranger easily took away the knife, and told the man to go back upstairs. Then he sat down on the mechanic’s stool next to his motorcycle and began to weep.

I was about 14, and had just witnessed age-related dementia for the first time.

The hulking stranger was my uncle, whom I had come to live with. The elderly man was his grandfather. We were at his grandparent’s home, using the garage under the house as a warm place to get a little work done on his bike. He and his grandparents were close, always had been. He had lived with them for a while when he was young.

* * *

President Trump is certain that he was cheated out of a popular election mandate due to voter fraud. Almost no one else agrees, and even members of his own party who are responsible for elections at the state and local level have said that there is virtually no evidence of actual fraud.

The President has also claimed that his inauguration had more people in attendance and watching around the world than any previous. The best evidence and estimates available from multiple sources do not support this claim.

I could go on.

* * *

I remember Martha Sr getting fixated on things which were weird, unpredictable. Fixated in such a way that no matter what we tried to  say or do, she was certain that we were wrong. Or just lying to her. Or something.

It was almost always some strange idea or memory or object which would catch her attention seemingly out of the blue and often at the most inconvenient times. The idea that the strawberry seeds in her yogurt were necessary for completing a crossword puzzle, so she had to pick them out and keep them. Or that she was going on a train trip, and had to make sure to go get her tickets right now. It drove us completely nuts, and was one of the more difficult challenges of being care-givers. We’d try to distract her with other things, or explain that we already had her tickets and she didn’t need to worry. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes she’d go on and on and on about whatever it was which had captured her attention, returning to it for days on end.

* * *

In the aftermath of the presidential election, many people who had supported Secretary Clinton were shocked, stunned, at the outcome.

Some started looking for ways to challenge the results. First there was an effort to get the Electoral College to not affirm Donald Trump as the winner, on the basis that Russia had influenced the election. Then there was a hope that the House of Representatives would not confirm the results of the Electoral College vote. Then there were challenges made to whether President Trump could hold the office, since he was in violation of the Constitution.

I could go on.

* * *

It seems like the long-respected norms of civic behavior are finally starting to break down. They’ve been stressed for a very long time, like a marriage which has gone badly wrong, but is held together out of fear for what would actually happen if one partner were to confront the other over perceived slights or suspected betrayal.

But now someone has had enough, and said words which cannot be taken back.

The shouting, the screaming, the breaking of china in anger and frustration has begun.

Young children stand in the doorway to the kitchen, tears streaming down their face, unsure what this means or what will happen next.

* * *

Someone punched a neo-Nazi. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer when Nazis get punched.

The day after the inauguration, millions of people marched in protest of the new president and his administration. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer the affirmation of civil rights and political empowerment.

The day after that, a top-level presidential advisor ill-advisedly used the term “alternative facts” when disagreeing about the turnout at the inauguration. Plenty of people jeered at her for doing so. It’s hard not to mock something straight out of 1984.

The day after that saw the start of a number of Executive Orders and memoranda signed by President Trump, putting into motion the changes which he and other members of his party had promised. Plenty of people cheered to see the change they wanted starting. Plenty of people jeered both the spirit and the letter of the changes.

* * *

I’m not saying that President Trump has age-related dementia. Not even the first signs of it. I’m a bookbinder, not a doctor, and am in no way qualified to make such an assessment.

And I’m not saying that the rhetoric and actions from those who oppose the new administration are equivalent to the rhetoric and actions of those who have supported it.

I am saying that things have changed. I think that we are on the precipice of something akin to Heinlein’s “The Crazy Years”. Things have changed so much, and so quickly, that I have had to go back and make substantial revisions to St Cybi’s Well. Because what before was a challenge to the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ has been completely superseded by our reality. It’s not the president who is showing signs of dementia — it’s our society.

And I am saying that when you accept and embrace the use of violence against a political opponent, you open yourself up to the use of violence against you by your political opponents. Because there are always justifications and rationalizations for such use, and human history is filled with the resultant wars civil and decidedly uncivil. Be very careful what you wish for.

Jim Downey