The Mardersteig New Testament

Modernism, as least where typography and design were concerned, seemed to consist of a sort of aesthetic idealism. Beauty possessed immutable forms and subtle proportions. Artifice could, at its best, become a transparent pane of glass, revealing content without calling attention to itself, while at the same time bearing certain hallmarks of good taste readily apparent to those in the know. While it's commonplace these days to assume that anything with a post- in front of it must be better than what went before, I'll take modern typography over postmodern any day of the week. The moderns didn't just resurrect the classic forms, they refined them. Thus the method of modern typography seems particularly appropriate to me when it comes to rendering weighty, important texts. 

And is there any weightier, more important test than this one?


People ask what my favorite Bible is, or what a Bible would look like if I could dictate every aspect of its production. (Some day!) The answer would look a lot like this New Testament, designed by Hans Mardersteig of Officina Bodoni fame, printed in 1958. Admittedly, I've always had a thing for red Bibles. Looking at this one, it's easy to see why.

This is the leather hardback that inspired me to want all my Bibles bound the same way. If I could find the stamps used for decorating this volume — or a rough approximation — I would copy it slavishly. The balance between austerity and ornamentation strikes me as perfect. The cross on the front cover marks the purpose of the book, the words on the spine send chills through me. It all looks so right. 

Above: Pictured with a red breviary.
Enough to make me want to become a monk.
(Don't tell my wife.)

The Mardersteig New Testament includes the text of the King James Version, studiously referred to within the volume as the Authorized Version to keep the tone elevated. For this edition, the colophon reports that an Oxford theologian (unnamed) was recruited to specially paragraph the text. This alleviates somewhat the KJV's tendency when paragraphed to resemble the novels of Jose Saramago. Not to mention the fact that phases like "specially paragraphed by an Oxford theologian" function like catnip at Bible Design Blog.



In addition to the text, there are twenty-one plates reproduced from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, the most famous medieval book of hours. The illustrates were printed in France by Draeger Frères, which was based in Grand-Montrouge. A note on the Très Riches Heures by Jean Lorgnon, curator of the Musée Condé  in Chantilly, is included in the back of the volume.


Above: The list of plates.

The illustrated plates are gorgeous, delicately tipped in. They seem to have been glued at three points — top left, top right, and bottom left — leaving them free on one corner to be lifted.

Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of illustrated Bibles. In this case, I'll make an exception. Like the book's other subtle embellishment, the plates speak to the level of craft and care that went into making this edition. It is an objet d'art in the fine press tradition. By virtue of that pedigree, it is also a pleasure to read.


There are no verse numbers. The text flows sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. Verse is indented and italicized. Chapter numbers are given in small caps, using roman numerals. The running headers cite the book, chapter number(s) and verse range. 

The layout offers a perfect example of the classic proportion which has been discussed here before. The outer and lower margins are larger than the inner and upper ones, which means your fingers never overlap the text while reading. There is plenty of room near the gutter to ensure that the no text disappears into the crevice. Because this is a New Testament, it has the luxury of not needing to pack each line with words. The text has room to breathe, which makes reading a delight. If there is a better way to experience the text of this or any other translation, I don't know it.

These New Testaments were printed in March 1958 by the Veronese firm Stamperia Valdonega. Most of them were sold in cloth editions bound in the Netherlands by Van Rijmenam N.V., but a limited edition of 375 volumes went to Torriani & C. in Milan, where they were specially bound in red leather. These volumes also feature red initials at the beginning of chapters, not a feature of the main edition. The one pictured here is #172 out of 375. 


Above: Note the red initial. Below: The colophon.

The spine is rounded and regal red-and-gold headband tucks in. The top edge of the pages is gilded. This volume shows mild discoloration on the ungilded front and bottom edges. 


Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about this New Testament is how many different disciplines are brought to bear. The design and typography are impeccable, the print quality superb, the paper excellent, the reproduction of the artwork precise and elegant, producing a veritable cathedral of a book, the excellence of its various parts a testament to the regard the craftsmen had for its content.



19 Comments on “The Mardersteig New Testament

  1. That text block is beautiful!!! I love the font, margins, and especially love the red drop cap!! Please make an ESV New Testament with the same text block some day ;). It would be amazing! (As a side note, for a new/regularly used Bible, I wouldn’t really care for the illustrations.)

  2. That is simply brilliant. Thanks for this!
    (Personally, I love the illustrations. It really baffles me that medieval bibles are more interesting from a graphic perspective than modern ones.)

  3. I’ve got to quit the BDB. You cost me more money this morning. Luckily there’s a vast gulf in prices for the Testament (vaster apparently than the gulf in conditions) so I didn’t take much of a hit.
    BDB Addiction — coming soon to a 12-Step program near you. But can we count on “a Power greater than ourselves [to] restore us to sanity” in the realm of bible acquisition?

  4. “(Personally, I love the illustrations. It really baffles me that medieval bibles are more interesting from a graphic perspective than modern ones.)”
    Hear, hear. Unless it’s a compact edition or a study Bible, I always go for illustrated Bibles. God’s Word inspired the greatest artists of the Renaissance and Reformation, and later brilliant illustrators like Dore. Why not experience them together?

  5. For all the reasons listed in the post above, the art of printing the New Testament as its own volume needs to be rediscovered. I believe I’m correct in saying that Crossway doesn’t offer a single setting of the New Testament by itself, nor even paired with the Psalter.

  6. Benedict: see, for one example. I think there are others.
    I understand the appeal of binding just the New Testament. All of a sudden, the vast majority of the difficulty of binding the Bible goes away. The New Testament is shorter than most of the novels I read (I read long novels). I also think that, on the whole, it’s a bad idea. The church as a whole (or at least in North America and England) seems generally not to know what to do with the Old Testament, and it tends to get relegated to “second-class” scripture, which seems to me like a pretty bad thing. I’d not see a publisher produce a stand-alone New Testament unless they were going to produce identical Old Testaments (likely having to be bound in multiple volumes).

  7. I have this very edition (mine is #319).
    The images are glued at more than three places. For example:
    * on p. 13 (the Annunciation — image #10 above) the half circle at the top is also glued;
    * on p. 447 (the Dark Crucifixion — image #17 above), the plate is glued at six places (upper right, upper left, half circle at top, left, and right, and 3/4s circle at lower left).
    It is also worth noting that these plates were printed by Drager Frères which was a famed printer. The plates are far more glorious than your pictures indicate; they printed with at least five colors: including a top shiny gold ink that exactly matches the gilding used on the top of the pages. If one uses a bright flashlight, this becomes readily apparent.
    To see what a difference this change in printing can make, look at the reviews on Amazon of ISBN 0500231192 and its later reprint 080761596X. The Amazon reviews of the latter that compare the two are especially telling: Drager Frères simply printed better books and images.
    I wonder if the regular (non-numbered) releases of this book also had the gold-colored plates. It is quite a luxury, and I think it is possible that less fancy editions had to make do with simpler plates.

  8. Kaleb, I have to agree with Benedict about Crossway needing a reading copy of the NT. A double-column 3×5 shirt-pocket bible hardly qualifies for serious reading. A nice NT wouldn’t have to be as glorious as Fujimura’s setting of the Gospels, but that does show what can be done with nice, thicker paper.

  9. Plush!
    Wish I could find something like that with Richmond Lattimore’s New Testament inside. The only single volume I know of is paperback. The original hardbacks are in two volumes.

  10. “I’d not see a publisher produce a stand-alone New Testament unless they were going to produce identical Old Testaments (likely having to be bound in multiple volumes).”
    I don’t have a problem with this. Pentateuch and Prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Twelve) volumes would each be slightly shorter than the New Testament. A volume of the Historical books would be the longest.
    Design/presentation issues would only pop up with the Wisdom books, I think. The Psalter traditionally stands by itself, but then where would Job and the three books of Solomon go?

  11. As someone with little regard for tradition, I’d throw all the wisdom books together. A five-volume, elegantly designed Bible would be lovely, though I question the viability of it. Five leather covers costs a whole lot more than one big one, and I think most people wouldn’t buy a multi-volume Bible…

  12. Thanks Theophrastus! Don’t know how I missed that. I’ll order one today. Hope it’s a good binding.

  13. Thank you for this post, which inspired me to buy one of these Bibles! It just arrived, and I am quite happy with it (even though it’s only a cloth-bound edition). Personally, I prefer non-illustrated Bibles, but I have to make an exception here because these illustrations are quite superb. Even better, though, is the readable, paragraphed KJV, with no verse numbers, no italicized text (except with poetry, where it facilitates reading), no distractions.
    From the prospectus that came with it: “Ten years have been spent in the preparation of this book. The aim of the publishers has been to present the Authorised Version in the most perfect form possible, compelling to the eye and clear to the understanding. Hitherto all finely produced New Testaments have been too unwieldy for everyday use.”
    I wish modern publishers would heed this!

  14. I’ve just located one of these, but the seller says its bound in yellow leather, not red. Seems odd.

  15. Although a far cry from a leather-bound Mardersteig, the highly readable The Books of the Bible series is coming out in 4 volumes. Both the NT (Vol 4) and OT History (Vol 1) are now out in NIV11 with what I consider improved typesetting from their TNIV originals. (Just wish the margins were a bit bigger.)
    Zondervan’s coming out with single volume editions of TBOTB (ISBN 978-0310400578, 978-0310402466 and 978-0310402077) but I haven’t seen any page samples yet.

  16. What font is this? It looks very similar to Bembo but I’m not sure it is.

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