Around 450 years ago the Antwerp printing press of Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) set out to create what Plantin believed would be ‘the finest bible ever printed in Christendom’, explains art critic Alastair Sooke: a sumptuous multi-volume bible featuring the text in its original languages, produced under the patronage of King Philip II of Spain. Due to this royal patronage, it is also called the Biblia Regia, or Royal Bible.
Printed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean (related to Aramaic) and Syriac, the Plantin Polyglot bible boasts a range of beautiful and exotic types. The Spanish monarch invested in the project financially, emotionally and spiritually, and commissioned 13 copies on vellum for his personal use; only 11 of these sets survive today.
On 11 July, one of those 11 bibles will be offered in the Books and Manuscripts auction at Christie’s in London. Sent to Philip by Plantin in 1572, it remained in royal ownership until circa 1788, when Charles III gave it to his son. It then followed on by descent to the present owner, and is the only one of the original 13 vellum bibles in private hands.
On 21 and 22 June, this deluxe masterpiece returns for the first time to the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, a Unesco World Heritage site which still houses the presses it was printed on. Museum Director Iris Kockelbergh describes the return of the Biblia Regia to its original home as ‘an emotional moment’.
In our short film, above, the museum’s senior curator Dirk Imhof explains to Alastair Sooke that Plantin had only eight presses when he started printing the bible in 1568. By 1574, however, he had 16 presses in operation. Vellum is more durable and far more more expensive than paper, with a single sheep’s skin only providing two sheets. Imhof reveals that Plantin needed the hides from 8,000 sheep in order to print the 13 copies on vellum.
‘Astutely, Plantin recognised that such a project would bring him great fame, and he used this hook to appeal to the king’ — Margaret Ford
Philip sent a Spanish scholar named Benedictus Arias Montanus to Antwerp to oversee the translations of the text into the different languages. ‘He was a great Orientalist, who almost killed himself, literally, in the production of this bible,’ explains Margaret Ford, International Head of Books and Manuscripts. The first of the 13 copies on vellum was sent by Philip II to the Pope for his approval.
What, ultimately, were Plantin’s reasons for undertaking such an ambitious and technologically challenging task as printing a polyglot bible? ‘There was a movement in scholarly circles to look again at the biblical text,’ says Ford. ‘Very astutely, Plantin recognised that such a project would bring him great fame, and he used this hook to appeal to the king. To be associated with something like this — the word of God — would be the jewel in the crown for a Catholic leader such as Philip.’
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