Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

The Bible as a Typographical Challenge

King James bible  

A page from the King James Bible (Houghton Library, STC 2216)


January 20, 2011 – Printing the Bible was for centuries regarded as the ultimate test of talent and proof of achievement for many typographers and book designers, and the ability to create typefaces suitable for presenting the Biblical text was among the supreme challenges for typeface designers.

The Bible in Type, from Gutenberg to Rogers, a new exhibition at the Houghton Library commemorating the 400th anniversary of the 1611 publication of the King James Bible, showcases a sampling of rarely seen Bibles renowned for their typography or design. 

“Without question, for many centuries, the Bible was the most important book a Christian individual or family could own,” said Hope Mayo, Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts at Houghton Library. “Designing a Bible came to be one of the tests of achievement for printers--it was a physical manifestation of their skill and talent.”

In the exhibition are books that have long been regarded as precious and important for their design and physical qualities as well as their text.  They include one volume of a Gutenberg Bible, traditionally regarded as the first substantial book printed with movable type; a 1545 German printing of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, the last edition of the translation published in Luther’s lifetime; one volume of the Polyglot Bible printed by Christopher Plantin in 16th century Antwerp; and a 1611 first edition of the King James Bible. 

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More contemporary books include the Doves Bible, printed at the private Dove Press in London; the Golden Cockerel Press edition of the Four Gospels designed by Eric Gill, who created the Perpetua and Gill Sans typefaces that are both still in use today; and the Oxford Lectern Bible by Bruce Rogers, an American typographer who began his career at the Riverside Press in Cambridge.

“Anyone who is interested in the Bible, either as a physical object or for the text, should find something of interest in this exhibition,” Mayo said. 

The Bible in Type From Gutenberg to Rogers: An Exhibition Commemorating the Four-Hundredth Anniversary of the King James Bible, is on display through June 18, 2011, in the Edison and Newsman Room of Houghton Library. Hours. Directions.