The Jenson Bible joins the Gutenberg Bible’s page turning
By Gerald Cloud
Biblia Latina. Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1454–55.
Genesis, Chapter I. Volume I:5r
Among the most striking features of the two volume Gutenberg Bible is the consistency of its printing and the elegance of its letterforms: the rich black ink, evenly pressed into the page resembles the applied precision of a pen—and for good reason. The typeface of the Gutenberg Bible is based on the standard hand-written letterform used in religious works of the late-medieval period: Textura, also referred to as Blackletter, or Gothic. The letters have strong vertical stokes and a boxy appearance. The exact technique by which Gutenberg cast his type in lead is not fully agreed upon by scholars, but it is generally thought that the types were produced by casting molten metal into small letter-shaped molds.
The Gutenberg Bible, the opening words of Genesis, “In principio creavit Deus” [in the beginning God created]:
Biblia Latina, Venice: Nicholas Jenson, 1476.
Genesis, Chapter I
Displayed alongside volume one of the Gutenberg Bible is another two-volume Bible printed with equal elegance and expertise. Nicholas Jenson, a Frenchman working in Venice, printed the Bible on vellum (calf skin) in 1476. Jenson trained in Mainz in the late 1450s and is believed by some to have known Gutenberg. Considered to be one of the greatest early type designers and printers, Jenson chose a Rotunda typeface for this Bible. This typeface is rounder than Textura and derives from the handwritten script Carolingian minuscule, a standard calligraphic script in medieval Europe.
Jenson is most well-known for the Roman typefaces he created for works of classical literature, a typeface influenced by the humanistic scripts of the fifteenth century (the typeface or font of this label is a Jenson Roman).
Jenson designed the letterforms, which he transferred and cut onto the face of hardened steel punches. The punches were driven into copper matrices, leaving a letter-shaped void into which molten metal was cast to form the individual pieces of type. This traditional method of typecasting resulted in uniform letters and great efficiency.
In both Bibles displayed here, the large initials and the decorations were added by hand after the books were printed. The large format Gutenberg was suitable for use on the lectern, from which the original owners would have read aloud in religious service. The smaller and more luxurious Jenson Bible, with its gold illuminations and fine handwork would have belonged to a wealthy private owner. The Ransom Center’s copy of the Jenson Bible features detailed decorations, and more than 70 illuminated initials, which were added by hand after the book was printed.