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The Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress : A Resource Guide

The Library's Copy of the Gutenberg Bible

[Frederick W. Ashley, Chief, Order Div., and Chief Asst. Librarian of Congress, posed with strong trunk containing Gutenberg Bible, which has just arrived from Austria] [between 1930 and 1940]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the eighteenth century, the Library of Congress copy of the Gutenberg Bible belonged to the Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Blasien, located in the Black Forest of Germany. The monastic library's engraved bookplate (shown below) is still visible, affixed to the pastdown on the interior of the front board from bible's the sixteenth-century binding.

[Bible in Latin] 1454-1455. Mainz, Germany. Otto Vollbehr Collection, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


Situated above the detailed crest, the letters of the bookplate clearly state the bible's former owners: "of the Library of the Prince-Monks of Saint Blasien." Within the crest, the Latin motto, Religione et Patria Nihil Antiquius, or, "nothing is more venerable than one’s religion and homeland," reminds the viewer that the Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Blasien was a princely abbey, whose abbot was a Prince-Abbot (Fürstabt), an official title for a cleric within the feudal system of the region.

In 1765, the Prince-Abbot of Sankt Blasien, Martin Gerbert von Horneau (1720-1793), a scholar of history, theology, and music, first wrote and later published his notes from the comparisons he made of the 42-Line bible at the Library in Sankt Blasien with a copy of the 36-Line bible in Memmingen. Though at the time scholars were not certain which of the two was printed first (that would not be certain until 1890), the Abbot's contribution to the budding scholarship of early printing was important.

Image of the 42-line Bible.
[Image of engraving from Gerbert's Iter Alemannicum] Ulm [etc.] J.C. Wohler, 1767. D917 .G36 Pre-1801 Coll. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In both the German and Latin editions of his work, Iter Alemannicum, Gerbert included an engraving of the beginning (known as the "Incipit") of Genesis 1:1 with its distinctive initial "I". This engraving provided other scholars with a means of comparison in identifying other copies of the 42-Line bible.

This copy of the Gutenberg Bible did not stay in the Library at Sankt Blasien, however; with the invasion of Napoleon in 1796, it was moved to a Benedictine monastery at Einsiedeln in Schwyz, and then to the Kollegiatstift of Spital am Pyhrn in 1807, and then to the the monastery of Sankt Paul in Lavanttal in 1809. In 1900 a Gutenberg specialist documented its presence at Sankt Paul in Lavanttal.

In 1926 Otto Vollbehr made an arrangement with the monks at Sankt Paul to purchase the three-volume Gutenberg Bible for his own collection of early printed books, which he had amassed for very little following the devastation of World War I. The Gutenberg Bible, however, remained in Lavanttal, Austria. Three years later, Congress purchased Vollbehr's collection of 3,000 incunables and the Gutenberg Bible. While the incunables had already arrived in the United States, staff from the Library of Congress had to travel to Austria to finalize the sale and transfer of the Gutenberg Bible, which did not arrive in Washington, D.C. until September 3, 1930.

Purchased by an act of Congress for the benefit of the public, the three volume Gutenberg Bible remains on public display in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building so that everyone who comes to the Library of Congress can witness this monument of European typography.