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The Gutenberg Bible

A Revolution in Printing

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Gutenberg Bible

Close up of an illuminated portion of one of the pages of a Gutenberg Bible printed on paper.

Somewhere around 1455-1457 Johannes Gutenberg printed a book. What was most significant about this book, a copy of the Bible, was that it was the first major book printed with movable type. Printing and publishing would never be the same.

1st Printing of the Gutenberg Bible

According to Scopes Systems Any-Day-in-History, March 22, 1457 was the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible although the exact day and year may be in dispute — most sources suggest an earlier year of 1454 or 1455 or even earlier — September 30, 1452. No matter what the exact date, it was the first major book printed with movable type (not the Web/Blog publishing platform) and it ushered in a revolution in printing.

Typesetting the Gutenberg Bible

  • It was the first major book printed on a printing press. What distinguished this printing from other book printings was that the press used movable type making it possible to print many identical copies much more quickly. Although the exact number printed is unknown, it is estimated to have been 160 to 180 copies total, most on paper. Of those printed, around 50 copies (not all complete) are still in existence.

  • Possibly to save paper, later pages of the book had the line spacing decreased (margins remained the same) so that more lines (from 40 to 42) of text would fit on a page. Thus it became known also as a 42-line Bible. In subsequent printings the earlier pages were reset to 42 lines as well.

  • Some copies were printed on paper, others on more expensive calfskin vellum. The British Library has one of each. The paper one, known as the King's Copy, was acquired by George III and the vellum one was received from Thomas Grenville.

  • There were two-volume and large one-volume editions printed.

  • Each page has a watermark. You can see close-up images of a grape cluster and a bull watermark on some pages of the 2-volume paper copy at The Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

  • Printed in Latin, it is set in blackletter type of the textura style.

  • Headings before each book of the Bible, notes, and corrections, as well as illumination (decoration) was added by hand after printing (but not all copies were illuminated). See Anatomy of a Page from the Gutenberg Bible. When laying out the pages it was necessary for the printer to allocate space for the illumination and other ornamentation that would be added later by various artists.

Digitizing the Gutenberg Bible

The Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus has one of only 5 copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the United States. Almost 1,300 scanned digital images of the Gutenberg Bible are available online for viewing and study. Enlarged images such as this one of page 049 from Volume 1, Old Testament shows an example of the illuminated letters and other decorative touches found throughout the book.

The British Library has digital versions of two copies of the Gutenberg Bible and you can compare the texts. You see the different appearance of the paper/vellum, the differences in illumination (including different letterforms for the decorative initial caps), and how the text appears darker, heavier on the vellum.

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York has three copies of the Gutenberg Bible. They have digital images of the single volume Old Testament copy online for viewing. You can also read the provenance of this copy, originally a gift to a Lutheran minister in 1565.

More images of other copies can be found online. Here's a small selection:

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