Bible in Latin, 1540

Paris: Robert Estienne, 1540

Robert Estienne (1503-59), who Latinized his name as Robertus Stephanus and was known in England as Stephens, was the second in a dynasty of French scholars and printers that dominated the publishing trade in sixteenth-century Europe. As a scholar he was interested in lexicography, Greek and Latin literature, and the Bible. His Latin dictionary published in 1536 under the title of Thesaurus Linguae Latinae established lexicography as a modern discipline. As a Bible scholar and publisher Estienne issued eight editions of the Bible in Latin, two in Hebrew and one in French, in addition to five editions of the New Testament in Greek, another five in Latin, and two in French. He introduced many innovations in the art of printing and earned the patronage of King Francis I (1515-47), who appointed him Royal Typographer for Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in 1539-40. The University of Paris censured his editions of the Bible and his manifest sympathy for the ideas of the Reformation made him suspect in the eyes of the established Church. After the death of Francis I, Estienne took refuge in Geneva where he continued to publish the Bible and printed many of Calvin’s works.

The Latin Bible described here is the third folio edition issued by Estienne and the only illustrated Bible he ever published. His first edition, completed in 1528, included the readings of three previously neglected manuscripts available in Paris and quoted the biblical texts found in the works of Augustine. Many consider it as the first critical edition of the Vulgate. For the third folio Estienne used an even more impressive list of sources. His preface mentions at least 16 manuscripts and 3 printed editions. Estienne illustrated with detailed woodcuts the biblical descriptions of the Tabernacle and the Temple of Solomon and gave credit for the scholarly research involved in the project to François Vatable (d. 1547), the Royal Professor of Hebrew in Paris.

The title page of the 1540 Bible includes a large version of Estienne’s printer device, one of the most celebrated trademarks in the history of printing. The image is based on Paul’s rendering of the Parable of the Olive Tree in Romans 11 and more specifically on v. 17-20:

And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakes of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches … Be not highminded, nut fear. (King James Bible)

Paul’s text obviously refers to the salvation of the Gentiles. Estienne’s woodcut shows an olive tree with cut-off branches and grafted shoots and a standing figure pointing at it. The unidentified man, dressed in a rich mantle, is bald and bare-footed. The Latin phrase Noli altum sapere that connects him to the olive tree corresponds quite literally to the phrase Be not highminded in the 1611 English version. In 1954, Elizabeth Armstrong defined it as “a manifesto of intellectual humility in the presence of revealed truth.” Fred Schreiber has argued in 1982 that the standing figure is Paul. It may as well be a generic representation of man. At the bottom of the image, slightly to the left of the tree, a diminutive Lorraine cross reaffirms the French origin of the publication.

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