A Fragmented History in the Giant Bible of Mainz

In the following guest post, Music Division Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis investigates a musical connection within the recently digitized Giant Bible of Mainz from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

On April 4, 1952, Lessing J. Rosenwald donated an exquisite treasure to the Library of Congress: the Giant Bible of Mainz. The date is noteworthy: Exactly 500 years earlier, on April 4, 1452, an anonymous scribe sat with his Calamus fidelis [faithful pen]—or so a statement in the manuscript tells us—and began diligently copying the Latin text of the Bible onto 459 vellum leaves.[1] The project would take more than a year, concluding on July 9, 1453. The first volume also includes a coat of arms of Bishop Rudolph von Rüdesheim and Emmerich Nauta, Abbot of Johannisberg Monastery, who influenced liturgical reforms in the diocese of Mainz.[2] This clue suggests that the Bible was produced in Mainz, the same city where Johannes Gutenberg was developing movable type and would publish his famed Gutenberg Bible.[3] And because of the dates in the manuscript itself, we can know that this manuscript Bible was indeed contemporaneous with Gutenberg’s masterpiece!

Illuminated page with colorful botanical border surrounding text

Detail from the opening prologue. Giant Bible of Mainz. April 1452-July 9, 1453. Vol. 1. Rosenwald 5. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

The Giant Bible is in remarkable condition, and appears as though it was completed just yesterday. The gold leaf is intact, its colors remain vibrant, and the vellum immaculately clean. It is free from any tears or drops of candle wax, and the corners are unworn—all features indicating that it was minimally used, or perhaps never used at all. Intriguingly, most of the illustrations were never completed. The first volume opens with several illuminated initials and colorful marginalia, but these cease after folio 31. The remaining decorations exist only as sketches and the painting was never completed, although the gold leaf was added to some letters. These later illustrations were likely the work of a different artist.[4]

The stunning decoration of the Bible leaves contrasts sharply with that found on a fragment from a fourteenth-century chant manuscript that is pasted on the inside cover of the first volume. The source of this fragment was not a small-sized manuscript, but it is eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of the massive tome to which it was added. The act of dismembering books that had been painstakingly copied by hand may come as a surprise to modern viewers—and some may even view such behavior with dismay—but during the medieval period recycling was often necessary because vellum was expensive. When they were no longer needed for their original purposes, pages from older books were sometimes repurposed for binding use, a practice evident in numerous other manuscripts from the time period.

Inside cover page featuring a piece of musical notation

Fragment, Giant Bible of Mainz. April 1452-July 9, 1453. Vol. 1. Rosenwald 5. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Close up of musical notation

Detail of notation on fragment, Giant Bible of Mainz. April 1452 – July 9, 1453. Vol. 1. Rosenwald 5. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Unlike the Giant Bible to which it is affixed, the manuscript from which this fragment originated had been extensively used. The corners of the pages are dirtied and worn, a later hand edited the text, and the page at one point was torn and sewn back together. This fragment was originally part of a noted Breviary, a medieval book containing the texts and chants sung during the Divine Office, a series of eight prayer services recited throughout the day. The chants notated on the page are for the Feast of Saint Anthony. They were widely used across Western and Eastern Europe, and are found in manuscripts dating as early as the tenth century. The notation, however, provides us with a clue as to the fragment’s origin: It resembles a Germanic type of notation known as Hufnagelschrift (hobnail style)—named on account of its pointed heads that resemble nails—suggesting that it may have been copied in the Rhineland. Beyond this, however, its history is muddled.

And so the Giant Bible leaves us with more questions than certitudes. Visitors are invited to untangle some of these mysteries in this video and Story Map. On October 6, 2022 from 11:00am-12:30pm EST, the Library of Congress will also be hosting an online event: Opening the Case: The Giant Bible of Mainz at the Library of Congress, which will present new research about the context and significance of this great Treasure. An evening public viewing of the Giant Bible will take place on October 6, 2022 from 5:00pm-7:00pm EST in the Great Hall.  Tickets are required and can be reserved at Live! at The Library: The Giant Bible of Mainz or on the Library’s Events Page.

[1] The statement, known as a colophon, reads, translated from the Latin original: “The end of the Old and New Testaments of the entire Bible, which the faithful pen, beginning on the 4th of April in the year of our lord 1452, concluded with celestial aid on the 9th of July the following year.” Christopher de Hamel discusses these dates further in: “Dates in the Giant Bible of Mainz,” in Tributes in Honor of James H. Marrow: Studies in Painting and Manuscript Illumination of the Late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Anne S. Korteweg (London: Harvey Miller, 2006).

[2] John Jefferson, “Rudolph von Rüdesheim: ein Zeitgenosse Gutenbergs” in Reviewing Gutenberg: historische Konzepte und Rezeptionen (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021), 163–164.

[3] Ibid., 164.

[4] Dorothy Eugenia Miner discusses the illustrations at length in: The Giant Bible of Mainz; 500th anniversary, April fourth, fourteen fifty-two, April fourth, nineteen fifty-two, (Philadelphia, 1952).

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