Gutenberg Bible No. 36 was printed in Mainz, Germany, circa 1455 on Europe’s first moveable metal type printing press. Today it’s on public display at The Huntington in San Marino, California.
By J.C. Thomas
Historians estimate that on this day in 1455, Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible – the first book ever produced using his newly minted printing press. Johannes Gutenberg, a German inventor, printed approximately 175 original copies of the Bible in Latin using Europe’s first moveable metal type printing press. Prior to this, books were laboriously inscribed by hand, making them extremely rare and expensive. With his invention, Gutenberg brought about a revolution in literacy, democratized access to knowledge and marked the beginning of the end of Europe’s Dark Ages.
It’s useful to note here that Gutenberg did not invent the world’s first printing press, and nor were his Bibles the first printed books. Artisans in the Far East were printing complete books as early as the 9th century A.D. The oldest known printed book is the “Jikji,” printed using metal moveable type in Korea in 1377. These facts do not diminish Gutenberg’s achievement, nor the importance of his invention to the history of European civilization.
Gutenberg’s Bibles, printed in Latin on vellum or paper and later decorated by hand, were objects of considerable beauty as well as innovation. Historians believe they were originally sold to monasteries, religious institutions, universities and a few very wealthy individuals. (A substantial shift to mass-market production of books was still centuries away.) Fewer than 50 of these first editions survive today, and they’re considered some of the world’s most valuable books.
The Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington
One of the finest examples, and one of only 12 existing Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum, is on public view in California, at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Henry Huntington paid $50,000 for the book in 1911, setting a new record for the highest price ever paid for a book.
The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, founded in 1919 by railroad tycoon and landowner Henry E. Huntington and the philanthropist Arabella Huntington, covers 120 acres in San Marino, just outside Los Angeles. One of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the nation, the Huntington has a massive and remarkable collection of art, rare books and manuscripts. The collection comprises some 11 million objects dating as far back as the 11th century.
The jewel in the crown of the collection is its Gutenberg Bible, known as No. 36, the only one in the western United States. The Huntington’s Gutenberg Bible is in two volumes, one of which is on display while the other is stored in the library’s vault. The two volumes are exchanged periodically for conservation reasons, and the open pages of the display copy are turned to limit light exposure.
Due to the pandemic, the wonderful gardens at the Huntington are open by reservation, but all indoor spaces remain closed. Check the Huntington’s website for updates.
Other Rare Books at the Huntington
When the Huntington reopens its indoor exhibits, be sure to explore the main exhibition hall to admire the Gutenberg Bible along with 150 or so other rare objects. Other highlights include the Ellesmere Chaucer, an original illustrated manuscript of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays published in 1623, and Isaac Newton’s personal copy of his “Philosophiae Naturalis Principa Mathematica” with annotations in Newton’s own hand. Also on display are letters and manuscripts by presidents Washington and Lincoln, an original copy of Audubon’s “Birds of America” and the original manuscript of “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau.
Looking for more top-notch SoCal museums to explore? Check out “Places to Play: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California.“