You say grace before meals. All right.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
and grace before the play and pantomime,
and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching,
painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing,
dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
~G. K. Chesterton, 1874 – 1936
Slovenia’s Sticna Abbey is famous for its illuminated manuscripts, with more than 70 created by professional scribes between 1175 – 1181. With such an illustrious history, the monastery seemed a fitting place to try my hand at caligraphy.
I was under the tutelage of not a monk but Tadej Trnovšek, curator of the Slovene Museum of Christianity now located at the Abbey. And while Tadej seemed to have the patience of a saint, he had no way of knowing that his pupil’s penmanship was so notoriously bad that the U.S. postal service routinely returned my mail, unable to decipher to whom it was addressed.
“You dont need to press so hard, you can just allow it to glide,” he said earnestly, upon seeing a huge black blob of ink emerge from my quill pen. I smiled to myself, thinking of my penchant for trying to make things happen through sheer force of my will, rather than allowing life to gently unfold.
I had come to Sticna with my guide Mateja Kregar Gliha and earlier, she and Tadej had given me a fascinating lesson in the monastery’s history.
In its heyday, there were at least 12 writers and 10 illuminators at Sticna. The scriptorium was led by a monk named Bernard, who had come to Slovenia from France in 1175.
“We only know three writers by name,” Tadej said. ” Bernard was regarded as both the best writer and illuminator at the Monastery. There was also Nikolaj—we assume by his name he could be a local Slovenian monk. The third was named Engilbert –from his writing style, its believed he was a German from Cologne. Engilbert was the fastest scribe, able to write 45,000 characters in a day–the equivilent of 25 typed pages!”
The Scriptorium was beside the only room that was heated. Monks were allowed to enter once a day to warm their hands.
The monks only wrote during the day–the oft-depicted image of a monk laboring by candlelight is a myth, as the danger of fire was too much of a hazard to allow it.
We slowly walked along the the hallways of the cloister, the arches and ceilings of which were beautifully painted. Artist Janez Ljubljanski, known as John of Ljubljana, created some of the monastery’s gothic frescoes. He was the most famous Slovenian Gothic painter of the mid-15th century.
Turning a corner, Tadej said, “This was known as the ‘reading corridor.’ Here, the monks would sit on wooden benches and listen to one of their brethren read or sing from the monastery’s manuscripts.”
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