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The Library and 'The Good Book'

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Gutenberg Bible at The Library of Congress

This morning I attended the spring business meeting of the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory body, created in 1990 by Librarian of Congress James Billington.

Council members received updates on the 2007 National Book Festival (Sept. 29, 2007), the 2007 Junior Fellows program, the World Digital Library and other issues, and also heard from noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss. (And we were treated to a sneak peek at his new book!)

Gutenberg Bible at The Library of CongressThe Council also received an extensive briefing on the Library’s ambitious “New Visitors Experience,” which will launch fully in 2008. As part of that briefing, several of the Library’s curators and staff spoke about individual exhibits and elements of the NVE.

I was particularly fascinated by the presentation of Mark Dimunation, our chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, on the Bibles of the Library of Congress’ so much so that I immediately asked for his permission to post his presentation in full, which I share with you now:

At the center of the Library’s Great Hall, two monumental Bibles face each other as if in dialogue: one, the Giant Bible of Mainz, signifies the end of the handwritten book and the other, the Gutenberg Bible, marks the beginning of the printed book and the explosion of knowledge and creativity it would engender.It took an act of Congress to bring the Gutenberg Bible to the Nation’s Library. In 1926, Dr. Otto Vollbehr, a German industrialist, came to the United States with a collection of more than 3,000 15th century books. His last stop was Washington, and over 100 of these books were exhibited in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.
Dr. Vollbehr proposed that if a benefactor would buy half the collection, he would donate the other. This caught the interest of the Democratic Congressman from Mississippi, Ross Alexander Collins, who, after an impassioned speech on the floor of Congress, proposed to set aside $1.5 million of public funds to acquire the Vollbehr collection for the Library of Congress � all 3,114 volumes. In June 1930 President Hoover signed it into law.

Of course, at the center of the Collection was the Gutenberg Bible ” a stunning, three-volume, perfect copy printed on vellum ” the book that today engages every visitor in the Great Hall.

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Gutenberg Bible, Lessing J Rosenwald, one of the library’s great benefactors, gave to the American people another magnificent Bible ” The Giant Bible of Mainz, one of the last great manuscript Bibles of its kind, and one that coincidentally was made in Mainz, Germany in 1452 ” that is in the same town at the same time that Gutenberg had commenced printing his Bible.

When we look at how these two grand books are similar and how they are different, we begin to understand just how important Gutenberg’s achievement really was.

Gutenberg, for example, mimicked what he knew as text, so his type font very much resembles the large, gothic handwriting of the Mainz Bible. And yet, it took a typical scribe nearly three years to produce one hand-written copy of the Bible. With the printing press, on the other hand, Gutenberg produced nearly 180 copies in two years. Out of all those copies printed in 1454, less than fifty survive today and only 21 of them are complete This is one reason why the Gutenberg is considered rare.

But the impact of printing with moveable type went far beyond the rapid creation of multiple copies. Johann Gutenberg revolutionized not only the book, but the very nature of communication in Western Europe. Text, once scarce and complicated to produce, now flooded all corners of Europe. Out of this explosion of text emerged the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.

The impact of the Gutenberg Bible was immediate; Fifty years after Gutenberg printed his Bible, hundreds of presses had emerged. By 1500 there were nearly 20 million books in Western Europe. Of these, the Bible was principal; by the year 1500 there were well over eighty editions of the Bible printed.

The Bible Collection at the Library of Congress offers us an unparalleled opportunity to witness the Bible’s transformation over 500 hundred years. With 1,500 editions of the Bible in over 150 languages, this splendid gathering helps to document the history of ideas, religion, art, printing, and illustration.

I have on display here a few representative books from the Bible Collection. The Geneva Bible which was published in English in Switzerland in 1560 by English Protestants is also known as the “Breeches Bible” because its translation of Genesis had Adam and Eve mask their shame by sewing a pair of pants, or �breeches,� out of fig leaves. In this vein, another translation is commonly referred to as the �Sinner�s Bible� because the typesetter inadvertently omitted the word �not� from the commandment �Thou shall not commit adultery.�

The first complete American Bible might come as a surprise to you. John Eliot (1604-1690) translated the Bible into Algonquin to aid in the propagation of the scriptures. Printed in Cambridge in1663, the Eliot Indian Bible, as it is now known, was the first complete Bible printed in the western hemisphere

And finally, Isaiah Thomas, one of the great American printers, released his Curious Hieroglyphick Bible for children in 1788. Certainly the most ambitious illustrated American book up to its time, the Hieroglyphick Bible contained nearly 500 woodcut images designed to encourage children to read the Scripture � and yet, only four copies of this remarkable piece of early Americana have survived.

Whether it be to understand the history of the text, its production, or its reception over time, the Bible collection at the Library of Congress offers a portal to the history of the book. From ornately illuminated medieval manuscripts through more than 500 years of printing, the Bible has remained a cultural and religious touchstone. With each new rendition, the Bible as a text and as an object, mirrors the art, the imagination, and the faith of its particular moment and evokes for our visitors the centuries-old traditions of the Bible.

You can read more about the Bibles at the Library as part of our recent �Illuminating the Word� online exhibition, which featured the modern-day �St. John�s Bible.�

Comments (9)

  1. Congratulations on your new blog. Your presentation on Bibles here is quite interesting. I wish you every success.

  2. This fascinating presentation on Bibles in the Library’s collections should be followed up with something about the copies of the Qur’an (Koran). Given the recent publicity over the first Muslim Congressman’s private swearing in using Jefferson’s copy of the Sale translation, it would be interesting to know more about the rare Arabic and English versions available in the collections.

  3. A very interesting post and thank you for sharing it. I didn’t know we had those biblical riches in the LOC. And I was just speechless at the comment of Collins wanting “diversity” equal time and “multiculturalism” even in this. Sigh.

  4. Nice informative article.

    Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂


  5. I’m lucky enough to be a volunteer at the Library of Congress. I work with new researchers (22 public reading rooms! Where do I begin?), I work at the information desks helping to assure that our visitors make the most of their time in our wonderful buildings, and I also give tours of the Jefferson Building. What a wealth of beauty and history contained within our walls. When giving tours we (of course) always stop at the bibles. It is indeed a coincidence that these two great books came out of the same town in the same year. Another thing I like to point out are the six paintings in the hall containing the bibles. These lunette contain paintings by John White Alexander called “The Evolution of the Book.” The final two in the “story” show monks manuscripting and Gutenburg checking proof sheets from his presses. I love that these images were in place years before we obtained the bibles; almost as if they were prophetic that the bibles would someday reside within their sight.

  6. Here is Very interesting information I liked most – “The Bible Collection at the Library of Congress offers us an unparalleled opportunity to witness the Bible’s transformation over 500 hundred years. With 1,500 editions of the Bible in over 150 languages, this splendid gathering helps to document the history of ideas, religion, art, printing, and illustration.”

  7. A wonderful tribute to the Good Book with especially interesting notes on the Gutenberg and Geneva. I am impressed by the clarity of the scans of the rare bibles.

    I’ve had the privilege to see the huge collection of rare bibles at The Los Angeles University Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an honor to see these rare books (Gutenberg leaves, Genevas, Eliot Indian, King James, rare Hebrew, Syriac and Ethiopic scrolls and manuscripts and many more). Pastor Melissa Scott has this remarkable collection on display each Sunday.

    I have also visited the Huntington Library and am impressed with their collection. Alhtough many of the Bibles are in secure storage, they often display pieces of their collection. It’s worth a visit if you’re in the Pasadena area.

    I’m glad this page was made available by the LOC and I hope to get to the Library of Congress one day to see the collection in person.

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