This September I visited the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, the historic printing press and UNESCO world heritage site. It was founded the 16th century by Christopher Plantin and was subsequently taken over by his son-in-law, Jan Moretus, and later his grandson, Balthasar Moretus. My visit inspired me to write about a selection of books in Magdalene’s Old Library that originated from the famous printing press.
The most famous publication from the Plantin Press is the ‘Biblia Polyglotta’, (1568-1573), the masterpiece of Christopher Plantin’s career. We are fortunate to have a set of these Bibles here at Magdalene.
The Biblia Polyglotta, otherwise known as the ‘Antwerp Polyglot’ or ‘Plantin Polyglot’, contains translations of the Bible in five languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean and Syriac. There were 1200 copies printed at the Plantin Press and its publication was the greatest typographical enterprise of the 16th Century.
There were also political reasons for the Bible’s production. The Catholic King Philip II of Spain had inherited the rule of the Low Countries and in 1567 the ‘Dutch Revolt’ had threatened his rule in the area. Plantin was suspected of Calvinist leanings and in 1566 he had assisted in setting up the production of Anti-Spanish literature in Utrecht. Therefore, Plantin saw the polyglot Bible project as a way of proving his loyalty to the King, and he gained interest and financial support for the publication from Philip II via Gabriel de Çayas, the King’s secretary. At the time of the Bible’s publication Plantin had sixteen printing presses, thirty-two printers, twenty typesetters and proofreaders and three servants, a huge operation in comparison to other printing presses of the time. The Bible’s production led to a lucrative contract for the printing of religious works for the Kingdom of Philip II.
The Bible is illustrated with lavish copperplate engravings (see above). The pair of compasses in the bottom-right hand corner of the first engraving is an allegorical reference to Christopher Plantin’s motto, ‘Labore et Constantia’ – ‘Labour and Constancy’. The compasses feature on the Plantin Press’ ‘printer’s device’; an ornamental design used by a printer, usually found on the title page of a book. A good example of the device can be found in the Old Library’s copy of In Sacrosancta quatuor Iesu Christi (third volume). This book dates from 1612, two years after the death of Jan Moretus.
The printing press continued to flourish in the 17th century and the book Litaniae Omnium Sanctorum cum selectis aliquot Hymnis et Orationibus from 1621 was printed at the time of Balthasar Moretus’ ownership of the printing press. The engravings in the book were produced by the atelier of Theodore Galle. As one can see, our copy has suffered from some 17th century scribblings!
I can highly recommend a trip to the museum, which not only includes the original printing presses but the elegant living quarters of the Plantin-Moretus family and their impressive library.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Special thanks go to Dr. Dirk Imhof of the Plantin-Moretus Museum for his assistance in identifying the engravings in Litaniae Omnium Sanctorum cum selectis aliquot Hymnis et Orationibus.
Bowen, Karen L. And Imhof, D. : Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge : Cambridge University, Press, 2008.
‘Museum Plantin Moretus’. Accessed 6 November 2014. http://www.museumplantinmoretus.be .