One ‘Luther Bible’ recently made the news (NY Times, 11 June 2010). Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, purchased the 1522 New Testament from Dr. Jörn Günther in Switzerland. Cost was about $400,000. The Bible is lavish, with 44 full-page, illuminated woodcuts. The 330 pages are 169 x 119 mm (6.7 x 4.7 inches). According to Günther the Bible was printed by Melchior Lotter of Wittenberg in 1524. The NY Times speculates the Bible is so lavish that it may have been intended for royalty, perhaps for none other than Martin Luther’s protector Frederick the Wise.
***A romantic notion. There are 12 copies of the ‘September Bible of 1522’ known but many thousands were printed. How many were so lavishly illustrated is not known but the Swiss copy is not unique. In the 21st century there is much interest in the dazzle of the vivid-colored illustrations. The woodcuts were almost certainly done first by Frederick the Wise’s court artist Lucas Cranach. Some illuminated pages of this version bear the initials of Georg Lemberger, an artist of the so-called ‘Danube School’. Lemberger is today recognized as one of the early modern period’s finest book illuminators. It seems Lemberger modified some or all of Cranach’s woodcuts and illuminated them with brilliant golds and pastels as only those from the Danube School could. It’s possible the two artists even collaborated. If so, Frederick the Wise was directly involved in at least the planning of the product. Later editions had modified the serpent’s papal tiara to a simple crown, supposedly making Luther’s New Testament less offensive to those who followed the Old Religion.
***The New Testament itself was translated from Erasmus’ Greek standard to High German by Martin Luther at the legendary Wartburg castle in 1521 and 1522. After he returned to Wittenberg he polished it with the help of others, notably including Greek scholar Philipp Melanchthon. There was no standard German. Luther intended to conform to the German spoken by the Saxon chancellery. It was less flowery than the actual court German. According to Luther expert Martin Brecht, Germans from north to south could understand 80 to 90 percent of the words.
***Thanks to Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) and the 14 September 2009 BibliOdyssey blog of ‘peacay’ for insights. The latter noted one can view an entire version at the site of Sweden’s Mälardalen University at http://www.mdh.se/hst/forskning/HAS/digitbooks.