Harry Elkins Widener Collection

The Gutenberg Bible

Biblia Latina, [the “Gutenberg Bible”].
Mainz:  Johann Gutenberg, 1454-55. 
First page of Genesis. HOLLIS 005779380.

The Gutenberg Bible, is the first major work printed in Europe with movable metal type.  The text is St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version, prepared by biblical scholars of Paris in the 13th century in an effort to produce a consistent and useful Latin text.  The Bible’s printer, Johann Gutenberg, was born in Mainz (in 1397?) and trained as a goldsmith in Strasbourg.  In 1448 he set up a foundry and press in Mainz, borrowing money for the venture from the banker Johann Fust (1400-66).  Gutenberg died in Mainz on 3 February 1468.

Estimates of the Bible’s print run range from 70 to as many as 270 copies, with the majority printed on paper and up to 45 on vellum.  Chapter headings and capitals were left to be rubricated by hand, a common practice in early printed books.  The Harvard copy, printed on paper, is one of the 48 surviving copies, only 23 of them complete.  It is bound in two volumes and one is always on display in the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Rooms.

Return to Top

Provenance of the Harvard Copy

The first known owner of the Harvard copy was Johann Vlyegher, canon at the cathedral of Utrecht, who bequeathed it in 1471 to the Brigittine Monastery of Marienburg at Soest near Amersfoort, Netherlands.  In Napoleonic times it was acquired by Pierre Henri Larcher, at whose sale in Paris in 1814 it was purchased by Payne & Foss for John Lloyd.  About 1840 it was acquired by Lord Ashburnham, whose son sold it to Bernard Quaritch in 1896.  A short time later it was bought by Robert Hoe who sold it in 1912 when it was bought again by Quaritch.  It was sold for Quaritch by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach to P.A.B. Widener, grandfather of Harry Elkins Widener.  On 8 May, 1944 it was presented to Harvard College Library by Mr. George D. Widener on behalf of his sister Mrs. Widener Dixon and himself.


Luther Samuel Livingston (1864-1914) recipient. Manuscript letters,1909-1914. HEW 12.12.25 F


In the letter above Widener writes to his friend New York bookseller Luther Livingston on March 10, 1912, telling him that he is about to take “a quick trip to England, sailing over on the ‘Mauretania,’” and returning “on April 10th on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.” Near the end of the letter, Widener tells Livingston “a secret, … grandfather has bought the Hoe copy on paper of the Mazarin Bible.  Is it not great?  I wish it was for me but it is not.”  This “Hoe copy” of the book known more familiarly as the “Gutenberg bible” did eventually come to the Widener Collection, as described in the Provenance section above.

Return to Top

Gutenberg Links

Excellent resources on the Gutenberg Bible, including digitized images of complete copies may be found at: 

The British Library  “Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible”

The University of Texas at Austin “The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center”

Keio university: “The Keio Gutenberg Bible”

Bayerische StaatsBibliothek in Munich “Gutenberg-Bibel”

Return to Top

« Highlights from the Collection   Harry Elkins Widener Collection »