Exhibition: "From Gutenberg to Kindle: The Art of Bible Making"

Glencairn Museum News | Number 3, 2011


This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James Version of the Bible, also known as the Authorized Version. Many celebrations and special events are planned throughout the English-speaking world. Glencairn Museum’s new exhibition, “From Gutenberg to Kindle: The Art of Bible Making,” celebrates the history and art of Bible making.

The translation, printing, and decoration of the Bible have long been considered art forms. “From Gutenberg to Kindle,” a survey of eight centuries of Bible making, includes medieval Bible manuscripts, painstakingly copied by hand; leaves from 15th-century Bibles produced on a printing press just a few years after Johann Gutenberg printed the first Bible in 1456; and a modern translation of the Bible downloaded to an Amazon Kindle, the most popular e-book reader.


In the 4th century Saint Jerome translated the books of the Old and New Testament from their original Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the everyday language of the Roman Empire. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (meaning “common”) translation eventually became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, handwritten manuscripts of the Vulgate were illuminated with beautiful illustrations, designs, and decorative initials. The exhibition features examples of 13th- and 14th-century handwritten manuscript leaves, as well as a complete example of one of the earliest printed editions of the Vulgate, produced in 1511 in Lyon, France.


Johann Gutenberg (c. 1400–1468) produced the first printed Bible in 1456, and by 1500 printing presses had been set up across Europe. “From Gutenberg to Kindle” features a working replica of a Gutenberg-era printing press made in 1990 by Richard Hicks of Cedar Crest, New Mexico. Hicks based the design of this replica press on 16th-century traveling presses, which were moved from town to town in order to produce religious literature during the Protestant Reformation. Glencairn Museum obtained the press last September for use in its educational programs: see the February issue of Glencairn Museum News for more information about this exciting new acquisition. The next live printing demonstration on the press will take place during Glencairn’s "Sacred Arts Festival" on Sunday, April 10th.

The earliest printed Bibles attempted to reproduce the appearance of hand-lettered manuscript volumes, using Gothic typefaces based on the scripts used for making Bibles and university texts. The exhibition includes several examples of incunabula—texts from the infancy of printing, from the invention of moveable type in the 1450s until 1500. One early printed leaf on exhibit comes from a 1476 Jenson Bible. Nicolas Jenson, a French printer who set up a print shop in Venice, may have learned the art of printing from Gutenberg himself.


At first Bibles were printed in the Latin of the Vulgate, but early Protestant reformers quickly realized that making the Bible available to ordinary people in their own languages was the most effective way to undermine the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1521, only three years after the publication of his famous 95 theses, Martin Luther began translating the Bible into everyday German directly from original Greek and Hebrew texts. Despite a papal ban, Luther’s Bibles spread like wildfire. Included in the exhibition are pages from an early English translation (the so-called Matthew Bible of 1537); a 1567 French Bible (the first to use numbered verses); and a 1569 Spanish Bible translated by Casiodoro de Reina, a former monk who was fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.


Glencairn’s exhibition also features a leaf from the great London Polyglot Bible of 1655, which has been called the “typographical achievement of the century,” with texts in nine different languages; a leaf from the 1611 King James Bible; and several portable and miniature Bibles. A special favorite with exhibition visitors is an 18th-century Philadelphia “thumb” Bible. A thumb Bible does not include the entire text of the Bible, but is a synopsis or paraphrase. Children were the intended audience, believed to be too young to comprehend the complicated language of the Bible.

All of the complete Bibles in this exhibition are on loan from the Swedenborg Library, Academy of the New Church, Bryn Athyn, PA. Most of them belong to the Swedenborgiana collection. Begun in the 1890s, this collection contains copies of every known edition of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian. The Swedenborgiana collection also includes copies of books known to have been in Swedenborg’s personal library, and books quoted from or referred to by him. Swedenborg owned a variety of Bibles in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), as well as translations in Latin, Swedish, and English.

From Gutenberg to Kindle: The Art of Bible Making, is open through Saturday, June 25, 2011. Regular hours at Glencairn Museum are Saturdays 1 to 4:30 pm, and weekday visits are by appointment.