Rare Books Department

Early Printed Bibles in Latin

In the late 30s - early 40s of the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg created the printing press with replaceable metal letters. Gutenberg solved a complex technical problem how to cast the individual letters on equal metal bodies uniformly. The letters could be combined into lines of type for printing a large number of copies of the text. The first book to be published using Gutenberg's invention became the now famous Gutenberg Bible. Two editions of the book were released: the 42-line (the number of lines per page) Bible of Mainz and 36-line Bamberg Bible.

The 42-line Bible was printed in Mainz between 1452 and 1455. It is justly considered to be a magnificent gem of the art of printing. At the same time, this printed book was specially designed to look like a manuscript book. To achieve a such phenomenal similarity, Gutenberg produced elaborated types for the bible, which included 47 capital letters and 243 lower-case letters.

Biblia [Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1454/55]. Sheet from the 42-line  Gutenberg Bible. Biblia [Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1454/55]. Facsimile edition of the 42-line  Gutenberg Bible. Saint Jerome's Preface. Biblia [Bamberg: Johann Gutenberg(?), non post 1461]. Sheet from the 36-line  Gutenberg Bible.

In order to equal the quality of the illuminated manuscripts, early printed books tended to imitate hand-written books. So printing business involves a fair share of manual labor. For each copy, it was necessary to fill in by hand large capital letters - the initials, or, to paint headings in cinnabar red as it was done in the 36-line Bible printed about 1460 in Bamberg. However, the necessity of the latter was caused not so much by an imitation of the hand-written book, as by the fact that Gutenberg's technology was not been able to cope with two-colour printing.

Psalterium cum canticis [Mainz: Peter Schöffer und Johann Fust, 14.VIII.1457]. Two-colour initial.
Meanwhile, decorating a book by hand, whether it was adding painted ornaments to it or colouring initial letters, was a time-consuming and labour-intensive process that delayed the publishing of books. In order to speed it up, the hand-made ornamentation was replaced by the identically engraved one. The first two examples of block books with printed initials, became the famous Book of Psalms of 1457 and 1459 issued by Fust and Schoeffer. Moreover, the Mainz Psalter of 1457 was the first book to be printed in three colours: main text, printed in black, contrasted with the initial letters stamped in red and blue. This was not the only innovation that the printers introduced in the publication: it first included a printed colophon giving complete details about the book's printing and publication.

Biblia [Mainz: Johann Fust und Peter Schoeffer, 14.VIII.1462]. Bible published by Fust and Schoeffer. Printer's mark.
In In 1462, the same printing firm issued the third edition of the Bible produced with moveable type. It is noteworthy that it was the first book to contain the engraved printer's mark. Unlike the block publications, complete Latin Bibles had quite different readers and some copies of them were richly decorated, and presentation copies sometimes were printed on parchment. The collection of the National Library of Russia possesses a luxurious complete parchment copy of the 48-line Bible issued by Fust and Schoeffer

Meanwhile, the early printers did not limited themselves to large size luxury publications. Among the early printed Bibles were quite a few that have more modest design, which the monastery and university audience could indulge. This ensured the availability of publications to the audience, in which they, in fact, were in demand - the monastery and university.

Biblia [Mainz: Johann Fust und Peter Schöffer, 14.VIII.1462]. Bible published by Fust and Schoeffer.
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