WHERE Biggs Museum of American Art, 406 Federal St., Dover -- WHEN Dec. 4-March 27 during regular hours -- COST Free for members, $10 others; some special events will be free -- FOR MORE INFORMATION Call 674-2111 or visit biggsmuseum.com

The Holy Bible has been produced in hundreds of different versions, from annotated to illustrated to Braille, and in dozens of languages, from Afrikaans to Esperanto to Tagalog.

According to The Gideons, more than six billion Bibles have been printed since Johannes Gutenberg made it possible to mass produce books in the 15th century.

The printing press also meant the end of hand-produced Bibles, one-of-a-kind works that were copied, letter by letter, page by page, by members of religious orders and meant mostly for the well-to-do.

Until now.

Beginning Dec. 4, Delmarva residents will have the chance to view parts of the first fully hand-written and hand-illustrated Bible commissioned in 500 years.

Seventy of the 1,200 pages of the Saint John’s Bible will be on display at the Biggs Museum of American Art through March 27, curator Ryan Grover said. The work is in seven volumes, and this will be the first time pages from each volume have been shown together, he said.

Each of the 35 cases will display two pages, each page measuring a little more than two feet long and almost 16 inches wide.

“In the medieval period, well into the 1500s, it was standard practice that if you wanted a book, you hired a scribe to copy one, including a Bible,” Grover said. “Gutenberg put them all out of business.

“The Saint John’s Bible is a way of going back to those times and recreating that magic, using very traditional materials,” he said.

But not everything about with the Saint John’s Bible is traditional, Grover added.

The text is the New Revised Standard Version, with the Protestant books of the Bible and those traditional to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, he said.

“It’s very similar to the Protestant versions of the Bible and also is one of the most accessible and widely-used formats internationally,” Grover said.

And each of the hand-drawn illustrations is contemporaneous with the language used in the Saint John’s, he said.

“People have been looking for bridges to this kind of material,” Grover said. “They’re modern images for modern audiences.”

Fifteen years of work

In 1996, Donald Jackson, calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth II of England, suggested creating an illuminated Bible under the sponsorship of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. The idea caught on and a creative partnership between the Benedictine monks at the university abbey and secular artists was born.

“Under Jackson’s artistic direction, and with the help of art historians and biblical scholars, this team came together over 15 years to create this Bible,” Grover said.

The work was seen as a project to celebrate the coming of the second millennium since the birth of Christ, he said.

But a project of this magnitude also required modern technology which would have been a divine miracle to Gutenberg and his contemporaries.

The text of the entire Bible was laid out in a computer program with room for individual illustrations, Grover said. Using quill and ink, calligraphers and artists followed those templates to create each page. Every word, every punctuation mark, is done by hand, he said.

As in medieval times, parchment made from calfskin, or vellum, is used for each leaf. Known for durability, some documents produced on vellum date back to the seventh century.

Recent renovations at the Biggs created enough room for the 35 cases, Grover said. They will be held in three large galleries arranged specifically for this project.

Although the formal show opens Dec. 4, a Dec. 3 special presentation will be part of the Dover’s annual tree lighting ceremony. In addition, the Biggs will hold 15 workshops, discussions and special events to illustrate how the Saint John’s Bible was created. Some will be free, while others, such as calligraphy classes, will come with a fee.

A March 5 presentation will feature artist Suzanne Moore of Washington state, who worked for 10 years on illuminations.

The Biggs staff has worked for more than four years to bring the Saint John’s to Dover, Grover said.

“We just realized we’re one of the few places on the Delmarva Peninsula to be able to bring in shows like this of interest to people around us,” he said. “The Saint John’s Bible is one of the biggest art projects in America in the past 100 years.

“It’s going to be a fantastic show.”

And a rare one, too, added Stephanie Adams, Biggs Museum Marketing Manager.

“Pages from The Saint John's Bible have never been to Delaware or our region before, and they may never come again.”