John McQuillen, Associate Curator of Printed Books and Bindings
The technology of printing texts and images had long been practiced in Asia, but by around the year 1400, Europe had only the technology to print images. The European development of printing texts with movable type was introduced in the early 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg, his assistant Peter Schoeffer, and Johannes Fust in Mainz, Germany. This large Latin Bible, referred to as the Gutenberg Bible, is the first substantial work produced on a printing press in the West. Prior to Gutenberg, it could take a scribe nearly a year to write out one copy of the Bible by hand. However, with the advent of the printing press, several hundred copies of a book could be produced within a few weeks or months, which significantly impacted the spread of information and development of literacy.
Gutenberg printed 180 copies of the Bible, some on paper and some on the more expensive animal skin, known as vellum or parchment; only forty-eight copies still exist today, and three are at the Morgan. Pierpont Morgan acquired his first copy in 1896 from the London bookseller Henry Sotheran. This copy is printed on vellum and adorned with hand-painted decoration produced in Bruges, Belgium, around 1460, but with heavy nineteenth-century restorations. Four years later, Morgan obtained a second copy through the purchase of the library of Theodore Irwin. The Irwin copy is printed on paper and was decorated by a local artist in Mainz, but it comprises only the Old Testament.
Finally, in 1911, Morgan was able to acquire at auction a complete paper copy in pristine condition. The red and blue painted initials indicate that this copy was originally owned by the monastery of Kirschgarten near Worms, Germany, just south of Mainz along the Rhine river. In honor of the importance of this pivotal invention to the history of the book in western culture, one of the Morgan’s volumes is always on display.