Yesterday was the 559th anniversary of the completion of at least one copy of the original Gutenberg Bible in 1456 (in the Bibliotheque nationale de France), and as such makes a fine excuse for celebrating a different aspect of relief block printing. Though scholars often rave about the artistry of Gutenberg’s masterpiece, it isn’t art the way I usually feature it here. Nevertheless, the invention of the printing press was as important to the history of block printing pictures as text - besides the fact that text can be beautiful, too. So, some Fun Facts to keep in mind about the Gutenberg Bible:
Gutenberg wasn’t the first to print with moveable type. The nearest comparable effort with movable metal type was printed in Korea in 1377.
The 42-line Bible wasn’t Gutenberg’s first product. He’d already done some broadsheets and even pamphlets before undertaking the massive production that was the 1286 page, two volume Vulgate Bible.
There’s quite a bit of variability among Gutenberg’s print run of about 180 copies (of which only 49 survive in whole or part). He first began printing with 40 lines of type per page, and with two printings per page: one in black, and the second in red for headings and initial letters. After the first few pages had been printed, Gutenberg decided that double printing was too laborious, and instead left blank areas for rubrication, the adding of the red
ink, by hand. After about 10 pages he started spacing his lines a little more closely together so as to fit 42 lines of type per page, thus saving himself about 30 pages per Bible. Later when the print run was enlarged, the extra copies of these initial pages were made to match the rest of the Bible. So, there are versions with some printed rubrication and some without, there are versions with some 40-line pages and some without, there are versions printed on paper and some on vellum, and any hand rubrication and illumination done on each copy will be unique, meaning that no two copies of the Bible are identical, despite its being the first mass-produced book.
When I was in 7th grade I received an “excellent” award at the district competition of National History Day with my project about the invention of the printing press, so obviously I’ve been interested in this stuff for a long time! And in truth, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the technology or how it’s changed and enriched life. But despite the continuing advances in information dissemination, there’s still something especially beautiful and magical about the pressing of ink onto paper, one sheet at a time.
[Pictures: First page of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, with hand rubrication and illumination, c 1455 (Image from the British Library);
First page of Genesis with printed rubrication and hand decoration, c 1455 (Image from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University).]