Bible in Latin, 1526

Lyon: Jacques Mareschal, 1526

The earliest attempts to translate the Bible into Latin began in the last quarter of the second century and continued through the following decades. They led to the creation of a text that was never standardized, generated many local variants, and did not include all 27 books of the New Testament. Known today as the Old Latin or Itala version, this text survives only partially. Pope Damasus (reigned 366-384) was so dissatisfied with the early translation that in 382 he decided to replace it with a new one. As editor of the new version he chose his secretary, Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, better known to us as Saint Jerome or simply Jerome (c. 347-419/20). The Pope’s secretary was to labor on the project for more than decade. He started by revising the Gospels while still in Rome, translated the Psalms and other Old testament books from the Greek text, then moved to Bethlehem, where he learned Hebrew and translated the entire Old Testament from its original language.

The new translation was soon accepted as the standard Latin text of the Bible and continued to be copied over and over again, until the early 1450s, when thanks to Gutenberg it became the first printed book. A perennial bestseller, Jerome’s translation acquired the name of “Vulgate,” from a Latin word meaning “in common use” or “published.”

Jacques Mareschal (b. 1485) printed at least 10 editions of the Latin Vulgate between 1510 and 1528:  six folios and four octavos. The beautiful folio described here was designed as a study Bible with marginal notes, list of chapters, dictionary of Hebrew names, and many other features. It was embellished with woodcut illustrations and initials that have been colored by hand in this copy. Its title page includes a fictional portrait of Jerome with all his traditional attributes. The Bible translator is represented as a penitent, kneeling in front of a crucifix and preparing to strike his breast with a stone. The scene is based on a story told by Jerome himself in one of his Letters (22:30). In a dream he had seen himself in front of his Judge who accused him of being “a Ciceronian, not a Christian” because he continued to love and read pagan literature.

The lion that watches over Jerome alludes to a story recorded in the Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies compiled around the year 1260 by the Italian monk Jacobus de Voragine (or Giacomo da Varazze, 1230-98). According to this story Jerome, while living in the Judean desert, extracted a thorn from the paw of a lion, who then became his follower and servant.

It is unclear when Jerome was first depicted as a cardinal. The title was not used before the sixth century and the red hat with 15 tassels on each side that is its insignia seems to be unknown before 1135. On the title page of the 1526 Bible Jerome’s hat and cape hang on a tree and the tassels lie on the ground as proofs of his humility and part of his penance. Portraits of Jerome dressed as a cardinal were so familiar to the sixteenth-century elite that Lucas Cranach the Elder did not hesitate to create the reverse image of a contemporary cardinal depicted as Jerome. In 1525 he painted Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg in his study with an open book and a pet lion.

Latin 1526 Bible Vulgate Mareschal Lyons Jerome TP