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24 September 2014
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The Illuminator and a Bible for the 21st Century

Easter Sunday, BBC TWO Wales, 6.10pm

In a former village hall, now called a scriptorium, amid the rolling hills of Monmouthshire, sits a team of artists undertaking a six-and-a-half-year task to handwrite and illuminate a new Bible, commissioned by the Benedictine monks of St John's Abbey in Minnesota.

At the helm of this remarkable $4m project - the first of its kind for 500 years - is Donald Jackson, a professional calligrapher and illuminator for 40 years.

"Calligraphy is about expressing people's emotions," he says. "If you have something important to say you don't just type it out, you ask someone like me."

The Illuminator and a Bible for the 21st Century (Easter Sunday, 20 April 2003, BBC TWO Wales) is the story of this huge undertaking.

For Donald, it brought out feelings of fear, dread and self doubt. Devoting seven years of one's life to something like this brings its own inner turmoil.

"There are times when I'm running on empty," he admits.

"What keeps me going? Fear of failure is one of the main things. The principal anxiety for me is 'am I going to be finally found out as a fake?' Is what I'm doing going to get critical acclaim?"

The film shows how Donald and his team carry out their painstaking labour of 11,050 handwritten pages in seven bound volumes with 160 illuminations.

It takes a day's work to produce two full columns of writing, done with quills, just like it would have been in medieval times, yet with the advantage of computer technology: polarity technology.

The Bible is written on vellum or calfskin, using 250 skins, with a thicker texture for the illustrations.

Donald demonstrates how a pen is made from a swan, goose or turkey feather, de-barbed and cut to create the perfect nib (with a penknife - hence its name).

"It's light, it's responsive, and it can pick up emotion from inside me," says Donald. "It picks up energy from the soles of my feet to the top of my head."

Donald's wife, Mabel, is originally from Wales, but Donald was born in Leigh, Lancashire. He believes that the Welsh countryside influences his work.

"The very vibrations of past generations are part of my inspiration for the Bible," he says. "Hope will be sensed by whoever opens this Bible."

Creating a new Bible with illustrations involves creating images unlike anything seen before.

The programme shows Donald at work creating a page depicting Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It starts off as a series of brush strokes in brown, red and green, but ends up as an exquisite painting imparting a beautiful luminosity.

One of the plates contains a reference to the Twin Towers of New York. For Donald it's a way of saying 'You have to love your way out of this one, you can't hate your way out of it'.

"Almost to my surprise I discovered that I am a spiritual man, and wholly accept how the spirit moves in my life," he says.

"I'm 64 years old, and there are three-and-a-half years left before this project is finished. It gives me awareness of my own mortality - that's a scary thing."

The Illuminator: and a Bible for the 21st century is narrated by Daniel Evans and produced by 3BM for BBC Wales.

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