Ransom Center staff recently turned the pages of the Gutenberg Bible to the opening of Deuteronomy.
Gutenberg Bibles have been a great object of study for scholars and historians of letterpress printing, but the manuscript decoration added to the Bible after printing also reveals a great deal about each Bible’s unique early history.
This particular opening was selected to display the style of hand decorations that are found in volume one of our Gutenberg Bible. In the early days of printing, books were decorated by hand after they were printed, just as they were in the days that preceded Gutenberg. Before printing, books were hand written by a scribe and then subsequently decorated by an artisan. Below is an example of a manuscript Bible leaf in the Ransom Center’s collections, written entirely by hand in the thirteenth century:
The layout of the page in two columns of text and the red and blue decorations are typical of Bibles in the few centuries before the invention of printing.
The style of the large illuminated initials in volume one of the Ransom Center’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is seen below, has been described by one scholar as “idiosyncratic and eclectic” while another scholar has called their style “bizarre.”
Often, the style of these large initials, which differ greatly from the style of letters in volume 2 of the Ransom Center’s copy, can indicate the location in which the decorations were done.
Compare the decoration in volume one (above) to the decorations in volume two, here at the opening of Proverbs:
The initials in volume one tend to combine multiple decorative features, such as gilding, floral extensions, geometric shapes, and other pen work, while the initials in volume two are simple red and blue Lombard initials. Often, the general location of such workshops can be revealed through the style and or habits of the illuminators, such as those described here. But scholarly opinion regarding the location of the workshop that applied the decorations to volume one of the Ransom Center’s Bible has wavered from Bohemia to the Lower Rhine to southeastern Europe without agreement. What scholars do agree on is that the style is rustic, provincial, and less refined than the decorations one typically sees in Gutenberg Bibles. Such initials would be less costly, and appropriate for a Bible used in a monastic setting, like the Ransom Center’s copy.
The initials in volume two are “generic Lombard initials” of a common style that are also very difficult to localize. The difference in the style of decorations in the two volumes does tell us that they were worked on separately by two different workshops—not surprising considering the scale of the job.
Another curiosity visible in this opening is what seems to be the date of 1589 scratched into the gilt of the letter “H” that begins the book of Deuteronomy.
The significance of the date, along with the identity of the hand that left it there and the unique nature of these decorations, remains food for scholarly thought and future investigation.
Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.