Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > The Invention > Illuminations and Rubrications
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Illuminations and Rubrications

How was the Ransom Center's Bible decorated, and what does it tell us about its history?

There are three distinct styles of illumination in the Ransom Center's Gutenberg Bible.
Cropped decorated letters from
Genesis, Volume 1, Page 005r
Ezra, Volume 1, Page 226v
Proverbs, Volume 2, Page 001r

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.

Three Illuminators?

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.

Elegant decorations by a highly skilled illuminator in a German style are found in the first sections of Volume 1.
Epistle of St. Jerome, Volume 1, Page 001r and Page 004r

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:

  • Would one owner need two similarly decorated Bibles?
  • How would two different owners employ the same illuminator?
  • Or, were these particular sections of the two Bibles illuminated before sale?
Following the elegant decorations found in the first sections, the illuminations in the remaining sections of Volume 1 demonstrate inferior skill and diverse styles.
Joshua, Volume 1, Page 102r; Ruth, Volume 1, Page 127r; 1 Kings, Volume 1, Page 160v; 2 Kings, Volume 1, Page 177r.

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.

The decorated letters in Volume 2 are painted using only red and blue, and contain no gold leaf.
Ecclesiastes, Volume 2, Page 011v; Song of Solomon, Volume 2, Page 015v; Revelation, Volume 2, Page 310r

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.

The work of Rubricator 1 appears only in the first section of Volume 1. Notice the neatness of the letters in the heading, chapter title, and red and blue initial letters. This rubricator worked with the first, highly skilled illuminator.
Rubricator 4 made corrections on both pages.
Genesis, Volume 1, Page 005r and 005v

The work of Rubricator 2 begins in Exodus with the heading, chapter title, and blue and red capital letters. Rubricator 2's work does not appear anywhere in Volume 2.
Rubricator 4 made heading corrections and notes in the margin on the right page.
Exodus, Volume 1, Page 029r and 029v

The work of Rubricator 3 appears only in Volume 2, as seen in the blue and red initial letters and headings.
Rubricator 4 made an addition in black at the bottom of 217r and in red on 217v.
Luke, Volume 2, Page 217r and 217v

Rubricator 4 completed and corrected the work throughout both volumes of the Bible. Dr. White has determined that this work was completed before the Bible was rebound in 1600 because on some pages parts of words and letters were trimmed off during the rebinding process.
Can you see the large initial letters on the reverse side of the page? Does it look like the pages have been trimmed, cutting off parts of letters in the process?
Jeremiah, Volume 2, Page 070v and 070r


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.

Four Rubricators?

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.

To learn about the process and tools used by rubricators and illuminators go to Books Before Gutenberg topic page in Books Before and After The Gutenberg Bible.

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