A new release from Taschen and rare early examples offered at an online auction bring the ever-popular Bible squarely into the limelight.
Taschen is a publisher who thinks big – just look at their giant monographs on David Hockney and Annie Leibovitz, which are so large they have their own floor-standing lecterns. Their most recent, Murals of Tibet, is even signed by the Dalai Lama. But, perhaps biggest of all, in spiritual and historical terms, is their new facsimile edition of the Gutenberg Bible, the 15th-century book that changed the world.
In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg, a German metal worker from Mainz, became the first European to use moveable metal type, ushering in the age of modern print. In 1454 his 42-line, double-folio bible was the first book using this new technology, which in part took inspiration from wine presses of the period.
One of the highlights of Sotheby’s Fine Books and Manuscripts sale this June is another smaller and slightly later printed bible from the period – a Biblia Latina, printed by Franz Renner in 1483. The sale also includes bibles from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, all of which owe a debt of gratitude to Gutenberg’s skill.
There are only twelve complete surviving vellum Gutenberg Bibles, with extant copies in the collections of the Bibliothèque national de France, the British Library and the Library of Congress, Washington. The Taschen reprint derives from the Göttingen Library edition.
Gutenberg’s brainchild revolutionised how information was communicated and disseminated. “Cultural historians rightly emphasize the truly transformative importance of Gutenberg’s discovery comparing it with the invention of the wheel,” observes Christopher de Hamel in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. But Gutenberg’s rubricated and illuminated creation was already highly finessed – like inventing a Ferrari wheel, perhaps.
And, as with the lots in Sotheby’s sale, his bible was coveted by collectors and institutions. “I have heard that there was already a waiting list for the volumes, even before the printing was completed,” noted the future Pope Pius II. While achieving a revolution in human interaction, Gutenberg also produced that Holy Grail of publishing: a bestseller.
Christian House is a London-based writer.
LEAD IMAGE: COURTESY OF TASCHEN.