The Library will be closed on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, in observance of Juneteenth.

Looking at Art: The Gutenberg Bible

Vi Ha, Senior Librarian, International Languages Department,
Close-up of a single page of the Gutenberg Bible, 1456
Close-up of a single page of the Gutenberg Bible, 1456

In this ongoing year-long exploration of the book that includes workshops, exhibits, video interviews, demos and more, there should be an exploration of the artistry of the book within the exemplary holdings of the Central Library, specifically focusing on the treasures in the Los Angeles Public Library's Special Collections that anyone can come see through making an appointment using this online form.

The first stop in this blog series about the treasures in Special Collections will be a dive into the Gutenberg Bible and the materials we have at the Central Library surrounding its creation, its subsequent impact on the world, and most importantly, an actual bible page printed by Gutenberg.

Much has been written about the Gutenberg Bible, but a brief overview of Johannes Gutenberg and the printing of the Bible follows. More about the overall history of the book can be found on this earlier blog post.

In the 1440s, German inventor and craftsman Johannes Gutenberg combined multiple technologies to develop a printing method new to Europe at the period. This European printing technique adapted technologies, namely: the development of oil-based ink, using screw presses commonly found in agriculture in making wine and oil to evenly apply pressure in printing pieces of paper or vellum, and from Gutenberg's metalwork expertise, the metal casting of metal type, to print what is now one of the most coveted Western printed books, Gutenberg Bible. Prior to Gutenberg's invention, printing in Europe consisted of stamping letters by hand or by pre-carved woodblock printing onto various materials, such as paper, vellum, etc.

Similar to the revolutionary aspects of the internet, this invention hastened the transmission of information throughout Europe in the production of printed materials. By decreasing the cost and labor of printed books, this invention increased literacy throughout Renaissance Europe. This circulation of information introduced mass communication and mass literacy and altered European society in subsequent centuries with the Reformation and the printed word's ability to mass distribution ideas threatening political and religious authorities and bolstered literacy of European vernacular languages instead of the Latin, the lingua franca of Gutenberg's time. To read more about the biography of Gutenberg, consider checking out this book here that goes into more details about his work and process: Johann Gutenberg: Master of Modern Printing.

Gutenberg's first major printing project was the Gutenberg Bible. Beset with financial pitfalls and overrunning costs, Gutenberg was only to print 170 or so copies of this Bible, of which 49 are known to exist—only 21 are complete, and 11 are in the United States. There are two versions of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible: ones that are printed on paper and ones that are printed on vellum. Vellum is a printing material made from bleached, cleaned, scraped, and treated calfskin. Of the 11 copies in the United States, the one in California is at the Huntington Library. To read more about the Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington Library, purchased by the unfathomable sum of $50,000 in 1911 by Henry Huntington, please check out this book; to see digital scans of the complete Gutenberg Bible, there is a digitized copy of the paper version located in Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. To see digital scans of a vellum version, check out at the Gutenberg Bible at the Göttingen State and University Library, Göttingen, Germany. The library has a CD-ROM copy of digital scans of the Bible held at the Austrian National Library.

If you are interested in a book adventure and learning about the provenance, the history of ownership, of one of the Gutenberg Bibles, The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-hundred-year Odyssey. is a book that has been written about the copy that is now located in Keio University in Japan. This bible is fully scanned, and the fragment that the Los Angeles Public Library owns is located here.

One of the prized possessions housed at Central Library is a page from the Gutenberg Bible itself. The page is referred to as a "Noble Fragment" because, in 1921, antiquarian bookseller Gabriel Wells purchased an incomplete Gutenberg Bible and decided to remove the individual pages and enclose them in a leather portfolio with an essay from A. Edward Newton. Because of this essay title, these portfolios are referred to as A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455). These portfolios were sold or donated to institutions and collectors.

Noble fragment from the Gutenberg Bible
Photograph of LAPL’s Noble Fragment of the 4th book of Edras, Gutenberg Bible, [1456]

The Los Angeles Public Library received its Noble Fragment as a gift from Fay Goldstone on January 28, 1974. Goldstone made the gift to the Board of Library Commissioners in honor of her late husband, Phil Goldstone, a motion picture producer, philanthropist, and bibliophile.

 gift from Fay Goldstone on January 28, 1974
Image of Interoffice memo of the donation text for Noble Fragment gift from Fay Goldstone on January 28, 1974

This page was valued at $4,500 in 1974, which in today's numbers would be the approximate value of $32,000. A recent auction price at the auction house Christie's in 2023 for a Noble Fragment was $119,700 without small rubrication. Because the library's Noble Fragment is missing its leather portfolio and has a large drop cap rubrication (red letter) and significant hand-done rubrication throughout the text, its value might be different.

The Noble Fragment was displayed on the second floor of the Central Library and survived the library fire in 1986. The fragment is currently available for public viewing by appointment. The text in the fragment is from the 4th book Esdras, which, in the modern Bible, is now considered a part of the Old Testament Apocrypha. (Apocrypha are biblical writings that are not part of the accepted canon of Scripture.) The text is written in what is called Latin Vulgate or Vulgate, which is a late-4th-century Latin translation of the Bible.

Given the importance of the Gutenberg Bible in Western culture, many homages to Gutenberg have been collected in Special Collections. There is a smaller-sized full black & white facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible that is available for viewing here.

Facsimile image of the library's Gutenberg Bible page
Facsimile image of the Library's Gutenberg Bible page

Two additional books contain facsimile pages of the Gutenberg Bible. This one contains facsimiles of 25 pages from the Bible: Pages From the Gutenberg Bible of 42 Lines; 25 Facsimiles From the Copy in the General Theological Seminary, New York

Additional facsimile images of Gutenberg bible pages
Additional facsimile images of Gutenberg bible pages

This one contains a facsimile of one Gutenberg page and includes facsimile copies of other famous incunabula (book, pamphlet, or broadside printed in the earliest stages of printing in Europe). Gutenberg and the Book of Books: With Bibliographical Notes, Reproductions of Specimen Pages, and a Listing of Known Copies.

Sample Image from Gutenberg and Book of books
Sample Image from Gutenberg and Book of Books

For the quincentenary (500th) anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, graphic designers in 1955 designed their version of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah. Modern-day Graphic Designers Typeset Their Section of the Bible: Liber librorum 1955.

Sample image of a graphic designer's design of Genesis
Sample image of a graphic designer’s design of Genesis