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Illuminations and Rubrications
How was the Ransom Center's Bible decorated, and what does it tell us about its history?
Europeans made handwritten books, or manuscripts, for more than a thousand years before Gutenberg printed his Bible. This time period is twice as long as the history of the printed book (from 1455 to the present). To be commercially successful, Gutenberg's Bible had to appeal to readers familiar with manuscripts. These readers would expect any Bible to be rubricated and illuminated.
In 2004, Dr. Eric Marshall White examined the Ransom Center's Bible. Some of his findings and the questions he raised are discussed below.
Illuminations are painted decorations added after text is handwritten or printed. The term illumination comes from the Latin illuminare, which means to light up. An illuminated manuscript is technically one decorated with gold or silver because it reflects light. Many manuscripts and books, however are richly decorated with colors and no gold or silver. The term illumination is often used in a general, if not completely accurate way to refer to all these artistic embellishments.
The illuminations in the Ransom Center's Bible appear to be the work of several artists and do not fit the typical artistic traditions of one particular region. In fact, the decorative styles of the two volumes vary so greatly that some scholars think that they were not originally a pair but were combined from two different copies some time before 1600.
The following section explores the artistic handcrafted additions unique to the Ransom Center's Bible.
Volume 1, an elegant hand
The illuminations in first sections of Volume 1 demonstrate fine artistic skill and the most recognizable traditional style of any in the Ransom Center's Bible. These elegantly designed and colored initials include leaf extensions and gilding often found in a German decorative style.
This beautiful style of illumination and the accompanying careful rubrications end suddenly in the first sections. There is then an abrupt change to a more rustic form of decoration and rubrication, causing scholars to suggest that Gutenberg and his business partner may have had the first sections professionally decorated prior to sale. Supporting this theory, these illuminations closely match those found in a Gutenberg Bible belonging to the Vatican Library.
If one illuminator decorated both Bibles, Dr. White asks these questions:
Volume 1, an abrupt change
The second style of illumination in Volume 1 has been called bizarre, eclectic, and rustic. Decorated capital letters in this second style vary greatly, but they often combine the traditional red and blue color division and many include a surrounding green wash. The letters include gold leaf gilding and are embellished with leafy tendrils, floral spirals, and geometric lily of the valley designs.
This artistic style cannot be assigned to the typical tradition of any region, leading Dr. White to suggest that it is the work of a remote artist living in a monastery who had limited training or worldly contact.
Volume 2, distinctly different
Volume 2 contains a decorative style completely different from the two found in Volume 1.
There is no gilding. The capital letters are simple, divided red and blue initials with white areas creating geometric patterns.
Rubrics are the handwritten titles, chapter headings, and instructions that are not part of the original text but are added to aid the reader in identifying these elements. Rubrications often appear in red to be easily distinguished from the text. The types of rubrics found in the Ransom Center's Bible indicate that it was used for reading in a church and monastery.
Too Complicated to Print
Gutenberg, at the very beginning of the printing process, before the lines per page were changed from 40 to 42, attempted to print the red rubrics at the start of each chapter and book of the Bible. Each page therefore, would be printed first in black and then, when dry, realigned to receive a second printing of the red initials. Several pages of the Ransom Center Bible include this second printing in red ink. This practice quickly proved too time consuming and difficult and was stopped in favor of creating spaces for rubric capitals to be added by hand after printing was complete.
Dr. White believes that four rubricators worked on this Bible and that it was not until the fourth finished in the late 1600s that the book became fully usable in church services. Only the fourth rubricator's work appears in both volumes of the Bible and is recognizable for its taller script. It remains a mystery as to why none of the four rubricators followed Gutenberg's printed rubrication instruction guide sold with the Bible.
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