Religious Works


  Sources       Books of Hours       Popular devotional books


The Bible was among the most frequently printed texts in the fifteenth century, appearing in roughly 150 editions by 1500. Although most of the editions were in Latin and intended for clerical and other educated readers, printed Bibles also began appearing in vernacular languages as early as the 1460s, most commonly in German.

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Biblia [High German].
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1483.

Purchased through the Howard Lehman Goodhart Fund.

Anton Koberger's two-volume edition was the ninth Bible to be printed in High German (there were also several in Low German), and was estimated to have had a print-run of 1500, an unusually high number for the time. Koberger included more than one hundred large woodcut illustrations, almost all of them accompanying the Old Testament. The woodcuts were not original to this work, but were instead made for Heinrich Quentell's 1478 High German Bible, printed in Cologne. The Cologne Bible seems to have been sponsored by members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a movement for religious piety and study among lay people. The introduction to the Cologne Bible explained that the purpose of the illustrations was to help clarify the text and stimulate interest among the readers, and to call to mind familiar stories from the Bible for those who could not read. Koberger helped underwrite the costs of the Cologne Bible, and so was able to acquire the woodcuts to use in this edition.


Erasmus was the leading figure in bringing Renaissance humanism to Northern Europe. His editions of classical authors and his original works, including In Praise of Folly, made him one of the most famous intellectuals of his day and one of the first able to make a good living from his writings. He took particular care with the quality of the books produced under his name, often serving as the proofreader. He worked with many of the best printers in Europe, including Aldus Manutius and Josse Badius, but had his longest relationship with Johann Froben of Basel. Perhaps Erasmus's greatest accomplishment was Greek-Latin New Testament.

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Desiderius Erasmus, translator
Novum Instrumentû omne (New Testament).
Basel: Johann Froben, 1516.

Gift of Howard Lehman Goodhart.

This was the first printing of the New Testament in Greek, using a text prepared by Erasmus from a number of Greek manuscripts, and it is accompanied by his Latin translation. This was a significant milestone in Biblical scholarship, for it established the principles that even the Bible should be studied in its original language, and that its true meaning can best be determined through the use of the same critical textual analysis that had been developed by Italian humanists for examining classical texts. Erasmus and Froben took special steps to ensure that this potentially controversial book had powerful friends. It was published with a privilege from the Emperor Maximillian, and it was dedicated to Pope Leo X.

Books of Hours

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Castle Book of Hours #2, use of Rouen.
Manuscript, written and illustrated in Rouen,
mid-15th century.

Gift of Ethelinda Schaefer Castle, '08.

Books of Hours were the most frequently produced manuscript volumes in Europe from the mid-thirteenth century into the sixteenth century. The books served as personal religious guides, with calendars of feast days, popular psalms, and, at their heart, a set of daily prayers to the Virgin tied to the hours of the day. Books to be used in different places had slightly different texts and decorations to reflect local liturgical practices and, most especially, locally important feast days. For example, the manuscript volume shown here was made to be used in Rouen, France, and the printed one blow was meant for readers in England. The tradition of illustrating the books with scenes from the life of Mary and the Passion of Christ began in the thirteenth century, and eventually led to such artistic achievements as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

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Leaf from Book of Hours printed by Phillipe
Pigouchet for Simon Vostre, ca.1515.

On loan from James Tanis.

Hore Marie virginis scd[u]m vsum Saru[m]...
Paris: Simon Vostre, 1512.

Gift of James and Florence Tanis.

By the late fifteenth century, much of the demand for Books of Hours was being met by printers who used woodcuts, or in this case metal-cuts, instead of hand-drawn illustrations. Among the most successful producer of books of hours was the Parisian publisher Simon Vostre [d.1522?] who issued numerous editions from the 1490s until his death. While most of Vostre's trade was in less-expensive books on paper, he also produced volumes for wealthy patrons who wanted books of hours that looked like the manuscript ones. These luxury copies might be printed on vellum and contain hand-decorated prints, such as the leaf shown on the left. The gold and paint on this page cover a print from the same block as that used for the (unpainted) page of the book on the right.

Popular devotional books

By lowering the cost of books and dramatically increasing their number, printing put book ownership within the reach of many more people. Among the works most in demand in this religious age were small, relatively inexpensive devotional works. Illustrated books were especially desirable, both because they were pleasing to look at, and because their messages could be understood even by those whose ability to read was limited.


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Ars moriendi.
Leipzig: Konrad Kachelofen, [ca. 1495-1498].

Gift of the Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Library.

The Ars moriendi, or "The art of dying well," was one of the most popular devotional books of the 15th and 16th century, appearing in numerous editions and most western European languages. The book describes the conflict that will take place between good and evil at the deathbed, and gives assurances that, through the help of God, the soul can overcome the temptations to sin. The first illustrated edition was probably produced in the Netherlands in the 1460s as a blockbook, that is, a work in which both text and illustrations are printed from wood blocks. The illustrations from that first version, with the memorable devils assaulting the dying man, were adopted as the models for most of the later editions, including this one. At the left is the woodcut for the temptation to despair. At right, the book is open to the following page, in which despair is defeated by the angels of hope.


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Les simulachres & historiees faces de la Mort,
avtant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement

Lyon: M. et G. Trechsel, 1538.

Gift of Lee Ashley Grace, in honor of his daughter,
Virginia Grace.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) did a series of drawings on the "Dance of Death" theme while living in Basel in the mid-1520s. He had them made into woodcuts by Hans Lützelburger, and when Lützelburger died shortly thereafter, the woodcuts passed into the hands of the Lyon printing house of Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel. Some of the woodcuts appeared as individual prints with German captions in the 1520s, but it was only with the publication of the full set in this 1538 French edition that the prints began to be widely known. Eleven editions were published over the following twenty-five years, and the images were widely copied and imitated. The Dance of Death was a popular subject for artists in the 15th and 16th centuries. The images reminded the viewer of the inevitability of death and the necessity of living a pious life in preparation for it. While following in that religious tradition, Holbein also used his drawings as social commentary, aiming particularly at the wealthy and at members of the Church.


Religious fervor was expressed not only in prayer and devotional readings, but also in calls for reform of the Church and society. Such reform movements were not new, but printing increased the power and reach of the reformers' arguments, with extraordinary consequences for European society.

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Girolamo Savonarola.
Florence: Bartolommeo di Libri, before September 1495.

Gift of Howard Lehman Goodhart.

Savonarola (1452-1498) was the first political and religious reformer to make effective use of the printing press to spread his ideas and recruit supporters. Dell'umiltà ("On humility") was one of the numerous inexpensive pamphlets that he published in Italian during the years between his rise to power in Florence in 1494, and his execution in 1498. More than 150 editions of his works were issued by 1500, most of them in Florence, and many printed by Bartolommeo di Libri, a priest and supporter. In spite of his excommunication and death at the stake, Savonarola's calls for repentence and the moral reform of the church continued to be widely reprinted throughout Europe well into the sixteenth century. This pamphlet is one of 29 fifteenth and early sixteenth century editions of Savonarola's works at Bryn Mawr.


The Protestant Reformation demonstrated the power of printing to spread ideas and support the building of broad reform movements. Luther's small, inexpensive pamphlets in German sold tens of thousands of copies, phenomenal numbers for the time. The enormous popularity of his writings showed the widespread interest in his reformist ideas, and also ensured that he and other reformers would be able to influence the thinking of a large number of people. During the most intense period of debate the number of pamphlets published in Germany soared, from about a dozen printed in 1517 to nearly 300 in 1524, as Protestant and Catholic writers waged pamphlet wars for the minds of the German people.

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Martin Luther.
Von der Freyheit eynis Christen Menschen.
Wittenberg: Rhau-Grunenberg?, 1521.

From the Bryn Mawr College Library Collections.

Martin Luther.
Eyn Sermon von dem newen Testament.
das ist von der heyligen Messe ...

Leipzig : Valentin Schumann, 1520.

From the Bryn Mawr College Library Collections.

The pamphlet on the left, On Christian Liberty, was first printed in Wittenberg in 1520 by Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, Luther's principal printer in his early years. The pamphlet was one of Luther's most influential early pieces, going through eighteen editions in its first year. In it, he argued that since all people are equally subservient to God, there is no need for a hierarchy of church officials to serve as intermediaries. Even though Luther's writings were issued widely as inexpensive pamphlets, printers frequently put woodcut illustrations on the outside to encourage sales. The cover on the right is from Eyn Sermon von dem newen Testament, printed in Leipzig by Valentin Schumann in 1520.

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Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections. February 22 - June 1, 2001