The Gutenberg Bible

Facsimile of a leaf from Biblia Latina (The Bible in Latin), printed by Johannes Gutenberg and Johannes Fust in Mainz, in about 1455
(455 x 310 mm)

On 12th March 1455 the Bishop of Sienna wrote a letter to the Cardinal for whom he worked. The previous October, he reported, a vir mirabilis (marvellous man) had been in Frankfurt showing sets of Bible pages produced by ‘a new way of writing’. The text was so clear that the Cardinal would be able to read it without his glasses. Some 150 sets were being produced and all had been pre-sold.

The Bishop’s letter is the earliest firm evidence of the existence of the first substantial book printed in Europe from re­usable metal type – the Biblia Latina from the press of J. Gutenberg and J. Fust, generally referred to simply as the ‘Gutenberg Bible’. Seldom can a ground-breaking new technology have been launched on the world in such an advanced state of perfection.

In the page reproduced here, only the black text was printed; all the rest was added by hand later, and varies from copy to copy. The start of a new book of the Bible, Ecclesiasticus, is marked by a hand-written title in red and a six-line initial ‘O’, hand-painted in green, blue, and gold. Further red marking (rubrication) picks out the start of every sentence. Delicate decoration has been added in the margin and at the foot of the page.

Gutenberg’s aim was to produce printed books which would be at least as good as manuscript ones, and his typeface was designed to imitate the letter-forms favoured among scribes producing religious books at that time. The Bible was intended to be read aloud in the dim light of a church or monastic refectory, so the print is large in height, but compressed in width to fit more in. The densely textured columns are said to resemble coarsely woven fabric, so the type-style is known as ‘textura’ (Latin for ‘woven texture’).

The leaf shown here is part of a complete facsimile edition published in America in 1961 and derived from an original copy of the Bible in a library in Berlin. It is the only leaf in my collection which is not an original.