The Bible Collection at the Library of Congress offers an unparalleled opportunity to witness the Bible’s transformation over 800 years. With 1,500 editions of the Bible in more than 150 languages, this splendid gathering helps to document the history of Western ideas, religion, art, printing, and illustration. Whether to understand the history of the text, its production, or its reception over time, the Library’s Bible Collection offers a portal to the history of the book.
Manuscript Bible from England
Creating a manuscript Bible was a complex and time-consuming task. By the thirteenth century, most Bibles were copied by scribes from an exemplar, or master copy, and were produced in greater quantity than before to meet the demand for the text.
Although the larger lectern or folio Bibles lent themselves to elaborate decoration and illumination, smaller, hand-held Bibles, such as this thirteenth-century English copy, were more modest in appearance and more affordable for the clergy and students who acquired them. Several copyists were responsible for transcribing this manuscript Bible, all of them writing in an extremely small cursive form of “blackletter” known as littera textualis currens that allowed more than 700 words per page.
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Manuscript Bible from France
This French manuscript Bible was written around 1275 A.D. The text is in a minute Gothic scribal hand, written on vellum, and decorated throughout with fine penwork in red and blue inks and historiated illuminated letters.
The opening illustration shown is from the Book of Genesis. The first word of the verse is “Incipit” and the full-page illuminated letter “I” that decorates the page contains representations of the Seven Days of Creation and, in the bottom lobe, the Crucifixion of Christ. The illuminations and penwork are characteristic of thirteenth-century French manuscript illumination design, and this Bible is a particularly fine example of the art form.
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Book of Hours from Flanders
This is an excellent example of a late-fifteenth-century Hours of the Blessed Virgin, a prayer book celebrating the life of Mary and the annual liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It is decorated in Renaissance style with twenty-one large illuminated miniatures, three different border designs, and a striking series of illuminated initial letters.
The image represented here is of the Evangelist St. Luke, symbolized by the winged bull in the background. The portrait of St. Luke, with the emphasis on his shaded beard and distinctive facial features, is extremely well painted. The decorated floral borders reflect design characteristics attributable to workshops in Bruges and Ghent.
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Book of Hours from France
This is perhaps the most important sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript in the collections of the Library of Congress. It combines the highpoint of humanist letter design with a style of illumination unsurpassed in Renaissance France.
The manuscript is attributed to the Parisian workshop of Geoffrey Tory and contains many of the architectural and floral design elements found in his works. What distinguishes this copy is the extreme care and skill with which the illuminations were executed. The composition skillfully incorporates perspective with Mary’s face as the focal point, and the layering of architectural columns leads the eye from front to back.
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The Nekcsei-Lipcóz Bible from Hungary
The richly illustrated Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible, most likely created in Hungary in the middle of the fourteenth century, is printed on vellum in two volumes. Because his coat of arms is on the opening page of the Book of Genesis, the Bible is believed to have been commissioned as a gift for a church by Demeter Nekcsei, Chief Lord Treasurer of Hungary, who died in 1338.
Scholars believe the artwork by several artists shows influences of the style then current in Bologna, Italy. The whereabouts of the Bible are unknown from its production until its sale to Henry Perkins, a wealthy British book collector, in 1825. The Library of Congress purchased this Bible at his estate auction in 1873.
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Bible from Bohemia
The size and configuration of this Bible indicates that it was intended to be a portable Bible, likely created in Bohemia in the early fifteenth century.
The illuminated initial “L” shown here marks the opening word “Locutus” (to say) from the Book of Numbers. Moses is portrayed on his knees. On his head are horns, a traditional depiction derived from a slight mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “ray of light.”
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Psalter from Germany
The scroll decoration found in this early thirteenth-century initial is typical of the work found in southern Germany in this period. The vine-like scroll weaves and spirals around a floral decoration to form the letter “B” in “Beatus” (Blessed), the opening word of this Book of Psalms. The manuscript’s six large initial letters are good examples of the simple, natural forms used to decorate manuscripts in this early period.
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The Jenson Bible
Following its initial printing by Johann Gutenberg in 1455, the Bible was consistently in publication throughout Europe. By 1500 there were well over eighty editions of the Bible printed. Although this 1479 Bible, printed on vellum, was the fourth version to be printed in Venice following the introduction of printing with movable type in Europe, its design and typography destined it to become one of the most revered publications of its kind.
Its creator, Nicolas Jenson, was a Frenchman whose Venetian shop printed more than 150 works, primarily ancient classics, legal, and theological literature between 1470 and 1480. His Antiqua type, based on Roman inscriptions, was considered the perfect embodiment of humanistic ideals.
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The Complutensian Polyglot Bible
This masterpiece of Catholic scholarship was printed between 1514 and 1517 in Alcalá de Henares (“Complutum” in Latin), in Spain but was not issued until the Pope gave his permission in 1522.
There are three main columns of text on each page of the Bible—the Latin Vulgate, the original Hebrew, and the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew.
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The Great Bible or Cranmer’s Bible
Known by several different names, the Great Bible, or the Cromwell Bible, was the first English version of the sacred text to be authorized. King Henry VIII (reigned 1509–1547) requested Myles Coverdale and Sir Thomas Cromwell to supervise its creation for use in the Church of England.
Today the book, especially the 1540 edition, is referred to as the “Cranmer Bible,” in reference to the preface by Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of the text has its origins in the earlier translation of the Bible by William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536). The Psalms that appear in the Book of Common Prayer originate from this Bible, rather than the King James Bible of 1611.
The availability of an English Bible caused controversy during Henry’s reign. He grew concerned about the consequences of allowing the lower classes to read the Bible and later placed restrictions on its editions and uses.
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The Geneva Bible
The Geneva Bible, which was published in English in Switzerland in 1560 by English Protestants, is also known as the “Breeches Bible” because in its translation of Genesis, Adam and Eve mask their shame by sewing pants, or “breeches,” out of fig leaves. The Geneva Bible was used by the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England until it was gradually replaced by the King James Bible.
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The King James Bible
King James I (reigned 1603–1625) commissioned an English translation of the Bible from a committee of fifty-four translators. This massive undertaking produced the “King James,” or the “Authorized Version,” in 1611. James intended for the Authorized Version to replace the popular Geneva translation, although it took some time for its influence to take hold.
The large folio or lectern printing of the King James Bible shown here was issued with a variety of informational materials, including a note on the translation, a map of the Holy Land, a full calendar of the church year, and an extensive genealogical chart from Adam and Eve to Christ.
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The Eliot Indian Bible: First Bible Printed in America
Printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1660 and 1663, the “Eliot Indian Bible,” as it is now known, was the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere.
John Eliot, an English Puritan clergyman and pastor in Roxbury, Massachusetts, translated the Bible into the Natick dialect of the region’s Algonquin tribes to aid in the propagation of the scriptures. One thousand copies were to be printed by Samuel Green and a young English press assistant, Marmaduke Johnson, an order so large that it required a special shipment of paper from England.
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The First English Language Bible Published in North America
The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the American colonies with the result that Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from “Scotland, Holland, or elsewhere.”
On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734–1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament that he was preparing at his own expense. Congress passed a resolution endorsing Aitken’s Bible.
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A Hieroglyphic Bible for Children
This curious children’s Bible, certainly the most ambitious illustrated American book up to its time, contains nearly 500 woodcut images. It was produced by the pioneer publisher of children’s books and preeminent early American printer, Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831).
A hieroglyphic Bible replaces some of the words of the text with pictures in an attempt to tell a story in a direct and interesting way. Such Bibles were quite popular in the eighteenth century as a device for teaching the scriptures, as well as reading, to youth.
A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, or, Select Passages in the Old and New Testaments, Represented with Emblematical Figures, for the Amusement of Youth. Worcester, Massachusetts: Isiah Thomas, 1788. Page 2. American Imprint Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
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Twentieth-Century Bible with Illustrations by Eric Gill
One of the most important fine press books produced in the twentieth century, the 1931 Golden Cockerel press edition of the Four Gospels set the text of the King James gospels into a modern book design.
Eric Gill (1882–1940), philosopher, sculptor, and type designer (he developed Perpetua type), designed the text and illustrations to weave and intertwine, producing a modern homage to the tradition of illuminated text.
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