It will be tough to say goodbye to the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition after this Monday (in the words of Juliet, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”)… but we hope to see you before it goes!
The Folger exhibition is open today (Saturday), Sunday, and Monday; admission is free. And we’re delighted to have started the last weekend of the exhibition with brilliant sunshine.
Some of the many “don’t miss” items now on display in the Folger exhibition include:
• An Anglo-Saxon manuscript from about the year 1000 that retells biblical stories in epic verse
• A rare Wycliffite Bible from the 1380s
• A 1530 fragment from William Tyndale’s contraband biblical translations, discussed by Hannibal Hamlin in this post: Tyndale was executed in 1536
• Queen Elizabeth’s 1568 Bishops’ Bible
• A Bodleian copy of a 1602 Bishops’ Bible annotated with translators’ changes
• The Folger first edition of the King James Bible
• The Prince Henry Bible, an elaborately bound copy of the King James Bible owned by James I’s older son, Prince Henry, who died in 1612
• A “Wicked” Bible (1631) in which the printer omits a key word from the commandment on adultery
• A King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower
• King James Bibles owned by Frederick Douglass and Elvis Presley
• Early family Bibles, with century-old handwritten records of births, christenings, and other events, including the Hamlin Family Bible
And what story does it all tell? In the words of the Washington Post from last September:
The exhibition includes fascinating mysteries, epic battles, stake burnings and other enthralling episodes in the lives of the men involved in Bible translation. It covers the events that led to the birth of the King James, as well as the book’s influence on art, literature, popular culture, music and history—from Handel’s “Messiah” to the reading of Genesis by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, a broadcast heard by a quarter of the people on Earth at the time, making the Bible’s reach literally astronomical.
The New York Times (also in September) put it this way:
Pay close attention to the major new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library here, “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” and you will see not only manuscripts going back to the year 1000, an early translation from the 14th century, Queen Elizabeth I’s copy of the Bible, and imposingly bound versions of the King James; you will also sense the gradual birth of the modern English language and the subtle framing of a culture’s patterns of thought… you cannot survey the riches at the Folger without realizing that you are being given a glimpse of a culture’s birth.
In his recent blog post about an American Civil War POW’s King James Bible, curator Steve Galbraith noted “the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by our one exhibition.” Another reminder of those historical KJB associations comes this weekend, with the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday on Monday and Dr. King’s actual birthday on Sunday. Curator Hannibal Hamlin wrote about Martin Luther King and the King James Bible last August, and King is recognized in the Folger exhibition as well. On Monday, the exhibition’s last day, the Folger Shakespeare Library also offers a free, family-friendly event for the King holiday on the theme of protest. And once again, the King James Bible of 1611 traces its connections to the present day.
Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, reigned from 1558 to 1603. Anne, last of the Stuarts, reigned from 1702 to 1714. The ghosts of these two queens hover across the Folger’s exhibition hall in the form of their great Bibles, on display together for the first time as part of the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition.
I had long known about the Folger copy of the Bishops’ Bible bound for Elizabeth I, but not about the King James Version bound for Queen Anne. There they are, facing each other, in all their weighty red and blue splendor.
Two years after Elizabeth came to the throne, English Protestants on the Continent published the Geneva Bible. Although it was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, her bishops didn’t much like the numerous marginal annotations, so Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s Archbishop of Canterbury, organized a new translation. This is usually called the Bishops’ Bible because it was mostly translated by bishops from the Church of England. (For more details about early English Bibles, see The Road to Hampton Court on the Manifold Greatness website.)
The copy on display, published in 1568, was designed as a presentation copy from Archbishop Parker to Elizabeth, whose youthful portrait graces the title page. Bound in red velvet with silver-gilt bosses decorated with Tudor roses, and a central bosse featuring a crown and the initials EL RE for Elizabeth Regina, it also features hand-colored woodcuts of Elizabeth’s chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and of her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Elizabeth liked a little “color” in her private chapel—she kept a silver cross and two candlesticks on the altar and preferred her priests to serve in proper vestments—so this Bible would have fit in perfectly.
Fast forward about 130 years. The 1611 translation of the Bible commissioned by Elizabeth’s successor (and Anne’s great-grandfather) King James I was still the “official” version of the Church of England. A copy of the 1701 edition of this massive volume was bound especially for Queen Anne around 1705, not long after her accession. The binder was Robert Steel, and he did the queen proud—dark blue goatskin blind-stamped with a floral design, with the queen’s arms in gold on front and back and two large blue silk ties trimmed with gold tassels.
Like her distant cousin, Elizabeth, Anne survived religious tumult. Though her father, mother, and stepmother were all Catholics, Anne was raised in the Church of England at the behest of her uncle, King Charles II. When her father, James II, lost the throne in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 because of his Catholic leanings, Anne had only to wait her turn to succeed her sister and brother-in-law, the Protestant Mary and William. After Anne’s reign, the Church of England was firmly established, and these two massive and ornate Bibles help to tell its story.
Georgianna Ziegler is the Louis B. Thalheimer head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library.