Sections: The Giant Bible of Mainz | The Gutenberg Bible | Other Bibles 

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.  (These objects are included in an interactive presentation only.).

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.

Biblia latina (Bible in Latin). England, thirteenth century. Manuscript on vellum. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: Rosenwald #2

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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.

Biblia latina (Bible in Latin). France, thirteenth century. Manuscript on vellum.  Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: Rosenwald #3

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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.

Horae Beatae Mariae (Book of Hours). Germany, last quarter of the fifteenth century. Manuscript on vellum. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: Rosenwald #9

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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.

Horae Beatae Mariae Virginia ad usum Romanum (Book of Hours). France, 1524. Manuscript on vellum. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

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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.

Biblia latina (Bible in Latin). Hungary, ca. 1335–1340. Manuscript on vellum. Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: MEDMS6

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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.”

Biblia latina (Bible in Latin). Bohemia, fifteenth century. Parchment. Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: MEDMS7

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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.

Psalter. Southern Germany, first half of the thirteenth century. Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: MEDMS9

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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.

Biblia Sacre (Holy Bible). Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1479. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: Rosenwald #220

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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.

Biblia polygotta (Polyglot Bible). Alcalá de Henares, Spain: Arnaldi Guillelmi de Brocario, 1514–1517. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

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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.

The Bible in Englyshe. London: Richard Grafton and Edward Whitechurch, 1540. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS160 1540

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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.

The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament.  Geneva, 1560. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS170 1560

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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.

The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New. London: Robert Barker, 1611. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS185 1611

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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. 

The Holy Bible: Containing the Old Testament and the New. Translated into the Indian Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663. Bible Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS345 A2E4 1663

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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.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues.... Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS185 1782 .P5

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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.

The Four Gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ According to the Authorized Version of King James I. Decorations by Eric Gill. Waltham Saint Lawrence, England: Golden Cockerel Press, 1931. Press Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Call number: BS 2553 .G5

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Sections: The Giant Bible of Mainz | The Gutenberg Bible | Other Bibles