"All things to all men"

November 29th, 2012 By Ruth Lightbourne

The exhibition ‘To the ends of the earth: Bibles in the Alexander Turnbull Library’ is now open, with a selection of beautiful and fascinating Old World Bibles.

Bibles have appeared in almost every language in the world beginning with the Hebrew Bible or Jewish scriptures (also known as the Old Testament). They have come in many shapes and sizes and in many formats: large for public readings, small for portability, practical no-nonsense editions for everyday use, pictorial editions of the 19th century, editions attractive to children, even editions issued in installments that could be purchased ‘on time payment’. Biblical texts have also been set to music, and used as a basis for other literary works such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or in the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake to name but a few. The items below give a taste of what will be on show in the exhibition.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New. Shows the title in vignette, decorated initials throughout, engraved head and tail vignettes.
Vinegar Bible. Ref: fREng BIBLE 1717

This monumental two-volume ‘Vinegar Bible’ printed in 1717 and measuring a little over half a meter in height, is one of the most magnificent Bibles printed in England. It is also known as the Baskettful of Errors (a pun on Baskett, the name of the printer) because of its numerous typographical errors. The most famous error is the heading for Luke 20, where ‘The Parable of the Vineyard’, has become ‘The Parable of the Vinegar’ – giving the Bible its name, the Vinegar Bible. Despite the mistakes, it remains an awe-inspiring work.

This copy, ruled in red throughout, was presented to New Zealand MP, A.R. Atkinson (1863-1935), by Nancy Astor (1879-1964), first woman MP in the British House of Commons. It was subsequently presented to the Turnbull Library by descendant, Miss J. Atkinson, in 1962.

A curious hieroglyphick Bible; or, select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth.
Hieroglyphick Bible, 1790. Ref: REng BIBLE 1790

Bibles designed to appeal to children included miniature Bibles and hieroglyphick Bibles. Hieroglyphick Bibles, where pictures replaced some words, became popular in the late 18th century as a way of teaching scripture to the very young. The full text is printed across the base of each page.

Liturgical book of the Ethiopian Church.
Liturgical book of the Ethiopian Church. Ref.MSR-31

This undated Anaphora of St Mary, from Ethiopia in Eastern Africa, contains prayers to the Virgin Mary in the Ge’ez script. Ge’ez is an ancient language now used only in the Ethiopic Church; its status similar to that of medieval Latin in Europe.

Anaphoras form part of the main service of the Ethiopic Church and are chosen to suit the occasion. The Anaphora of St Mary is celebrated on most feast days of the Virgin Mary, and also on Christmas Eve and the memorial day of St Heryacos, Bishop of Behnesa (the person believed to have originally composed this work).

In this copy, the text is written on vellum (animal skin). Prior to writing, the scribe ruled up the base lines for the text, in blind, keeping the lines even and straight by pricking small holes into the vellum at the outer edges. The pricking is just visible here along the outer edge of the right-hand page. The sewing on the left-hand blank page is a repair to the vellum. The text-block is enclosed in wooden boards, which are in turn encased in a red cloth bag with carrying strap.

Illustrations engraved on a page of the bible.
The Bible as a literary source. Ref: fRStuart 355

Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained, and On the Morning of Christ's Nativity all dramatise stories from the Bible.

John Milton (1608-1674), an English poet, pamphleteer, and historian, was the most significant English author after William Shakespeare. His Paradise lost, is considered to be the greatest epic poem in English. First published in 1667, it re-tells the story of the Fall of Man. At first the book was only moderately well received and it was not until the fourth edition of 1688 with its large beautifully-printed pages and twelve full-page engravings by prominent artists that the book really took off.

The illustration above is from Book 4 of Paradise lost (1688) where Satan is struck by doubt over his role in provoking the fall of mankind. However, believing that repentance is impossible, he confirms himself more deeply in evil than before. He crosses into Paradise and observes Adam and Eve and their happiness and makes his first attempts to corrupt Eve, but is chased out of Eden by the good angels.

The Bible printed by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1931.
The Bible printed by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1931. Ref. qRPr GOLD Bible 1931

The private press movement of the late 19th century began in response to a decline in printing standards during the Victorian era. Printers returned to the hand-set and hand-printed artifact, where great care was given to all stages of the production of the book.

The Golden Cockerel Press was one of the most important and productive of the English private presses which started work in the 1920s. Originally a co-operative venture set up to print new books of literary merit by young authors, it was transformed by the wood engraver and book designer Robert Gibbings into a fine press famous for its illustrated books. This Press produced a number of books based on the Bible.

The Four Gospels, described as the typographical masterpiece of the Golden Cockerel Press, was a collaborative venture by designer Eric Gill and printer Robert Gibbings. It is decorated with a large number of engraved initials, printed in red, blue, or black, many containing pictorial devices illustrating the theme of the narrative. Begun on the 20th of February, 1931, it was completed on the 28th of October in the same year in an edition of 500 copies.

Pages from early 17th century Qur’an.
Qur’an, early 17th century. Ref: MSR-34

The term ‘bible’ can also refer to the religious texts of other religions and the Turnbull Library holds several copies of the Qur’an. These were part of the Bible Society of New Zealand Collection and entered the Library in 1991. The Qur’an, or Koran, is the central religious text of Islam. Muslims believe it to be the word of God as dictated to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel and written down in Arabic between the years 610 and 632 AD. The Qur’an consists of 114 units or chapters of varying lengths, known as surahs.

This copy, written in Arabic, was completed in 1017 (Arabic or Hijiri calendar) which is 1608 on the Gregorian calendar. The incipit (opening) pages shown here, are often the most highly decorated. Islam does not approve of the representation of the human or animal form in religious contexts, thus artistic expression occurs in the ornamented script and in decorative geometric designs or interwoven patterns of floral motifs.

You will be able to see some of these items on show in the Turnbull Gallery from 26 November to 19 January 2013.

There are many places to see unique and amazing Bibles online. Take a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, and the famed Lindisfarne Gospels. If you're interested in Qur'ans, Altafsir.com is an essential resource.

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