Johannes Gutenberg and the art of letterpress printing


B42 may sound like the name of a German trunk road, but it is actually the culmination of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing art – the 42-line Bible with 1,282 pages. The initial letters and subheadings were delicately painted by artistic illuminators after the printing process. This meant that every one of the 180 Gutenberg Bibles printed was unique and worth a great deal. Two of the 49 surviving copies are the greatest treasures of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the state capital of Rhineland Palatinate. They can be admired under glass in a darkened room.

In a time when Bibles were largely painstakingly written and illustrated by hand in monasteries, Johannes Gutenberg’s black art of printing was initially eyed with suspicion. But his results could keep pace with the excellent quality of the handwritten manuscripts. Today, the Gutenberg Bibles are considered some of the most beautiful books in the world. 

During a guided tour of the Gutenberg Museum, visitors are given the opportunity to set their hands to making a page of the Bible using a reconstructed printing press. The design and mechanism of the wooden press developed by Gutenberg is very much reminiscent of a wine press. Back in those days, printing was strenuous work. Gutenberg employed 20 people to print the Bible.

Before Gutenberg invented printing with moveable letters, paper was laid on a wooden block painted with ink and rubbed until the characters were transferred to the page. He improved this complicated procedure by breaking the text down into its constituent parts: upper- and lower-case letters, punctuation marks, abbreviations and groups of letters that were commonly used in the Middle Ages.

Beautiful and unique, a Gutenberg Bible in the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

Beautiful and unique, a Gutenberg Bible in the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

For example, he produced 290 different metal characters in order to print a Bible. The Gutenberg Museum also shows how the individual letters were cast. It is at this point that it really becomes clear how incredible Gutenberg’s invention was.

Fascinating exhibits at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

Fascinating exhibits at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

Outside view of the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz in the Haus zum Römischen Kaiser, Rhine-Hesse

Outside view of the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz in the Haus zum Römischen Kaiser, Rhine-Hesse

However, not a great deal is known about his life. Historians are certain that he was born in Mainz in about 1400. An entry in the St Christopher’s church register confirms he was christened there. Not far away, on the corner of Christofstrasse and Schusterstrasse, stood the ‘Hof zum Gutenberg’, where he was born the son of patrician Friele Gensfleisch and from which he took his name. The post-war building built on its site is home to the Mohrenapotheke pharmacy. Gutenberg is said to have died at the ‘Hof zum Algesheimer’ on the corner of Christofsgässchen and Hintere Christofsgasse.

He is also cast larger-than-life in bronze and stands on a high plinth on Gutenbergplatz. The Latin inscription reveals that this was a European project: “Citizens erected this statute of Mainz patrician Johannes Gensfleisch in 1837 using money collected from all over Europe.” There are now a number of Gutenberg monuments in the city. The most recent of them stands in front of the church he was christened in and show him at the printing press he developed.

Half-timbered houses in the pretty old town of Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

Half-timbered houses in the pretty old town of Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

Interactive exhibits at the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

Interactive exhibits at the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz, Rhine-Hesse

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