British Library Treasures in full: Gutenberg Bible
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The copy on paper - Decoration

The Bibles were not ready for use when they came off the press; rubrication, large capital letters, and decoration were still to be added.


In the early stages of the printing, Gutenberg printed the red headlines before each chapter of the Bible. This procedure involved passing each sheet under the press twice and it was soon abandoned, probably because it was too time-consuming. Henceforth the rubrics were intended to be supplied by hand, by rubricators. This task was not undertaken in Gutenberg's workshop, for the rubication differs from one copy to the other. Gutenberg provided assistance for the rubricators by producing four leaves of instructions. Two copies of the instruction sheets survive: in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, and in Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The rubric from Fol 5 recto, the beginning of Genesis
The rubric from Fol 5 recto, the beginning of Genesis

The British Library's paper copy has no printed rubrication. The handwritten rubrication does not follow the guidance sheet. The rubrics seem to be the work of more than one rubricator. Smaller initials, chapter-numbers, and headlines are supplied in red, but the headlines do not appear to be by the same hand. Small capitals have been marked in red or yellow.


The style and the extent depended on how much money the owner wanted to spend. The British Library's paper copy has very lavish decoration, but on three pages only.

Text version of the Flash presentation

On folio 1 recto of volume I a 6-line a letter 'F' has been supplied in green and maroon highlighted with gold pen-work within the body of the letter, extending further down the inner margin and merging with a full border of flowers and scrolling foliage with birds perching on leaves.

On folio 5 recto of volume I a letter 'I' has been supplied in the inner margin, in the same palette as the letter 'F' on the preceding page, and containing an image of the deity, clad in an azure cape and with a halo, in the act of creation. There is a three-quarters border in the style of the previous decorated page.

On folio 1 recto of volume II a letter 'I' has been supplied in the inner margin in red and blue, with gold pen-work in the red area, and in the blue area with scrolling foliage in a lighter blue, highlighted in grey. In the second column a 6-line letter 'P' has also been supplied in the style and palette of the 'I', and extending into the space between the columns. Within the letter, on a red background with gold pen-work, there is a bearded figure (King Solomon) in a white hat (crown?), and clad in a red and white cape over a maroon tunic decorated with gold pen-work. A full border in the style and palette of the preceding two decorated pages; in addition to perching birds there is a climbing monkey. Other initials are less ambitiously decorated.

The decoration is considered to have been painted in Erfurt by Eberhard König, 'Die Illuminierung der Gutenbergbibel', in: Johannes Gutenbergs zweiundvierzigzeilige Bibel, Faksimile-Ausgabe nach dem Exemplar der Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz Berlin: Kommentarband, ed. W. Schmidt and F. A. Schmidt-Künsemüller (Munich, 1979), 70-125 at p. 117, possibly on the basis of an erroneous ascription of the binding to Erfurt.

Tell Me More

1. The copy on paper
2. The copy on vellum
3. The 42-line Bible 'Bagford Fragment'
4. Why compare the copies?
5. The digitisation
6. Analysis of the Illuminations Using Raman Microscopy
7. Copies elsewhere in the UK

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