Writing a Thesis About Bible Typography

r44mercer's picture

Hey Everyone,

I'm presently writing a thesis on the emotion of type and how we need a revival in Biblical typography and literary type at large. I was wondering if any of you have any experience in this or any references of interest. I really appreciate any feedback.

Ryan Mercer

r44mercer (at) yahoo (dot) com

Andreas Stötzner's picture

The scope of your considerations, as you describe it, seems far too wide and vague to get any sensible, usefull answer. How much have you *thought* about your theme?

”The emotion of type…“ – regarding everything from the Coke bottle down to the bible page?! Good luck.

”how we need a revival in Biblical typography…“ – you are postulating an assumption by this but without hinting at the reasoning behind it.

You may want to get a bit more precise upon the actual subject. Biblical typography alone is a huge complex subject you’ll hardly pretend to cover as such.

Nick Shinn's picture

I don't think a revival of old-time biblical typography would be any more use than reviving the King James translation.
It's too literary (to use your term) for the general class of reader, in particular new readers.
It would be more practical to continue down the progressive road, and produce sans serif text typography to accompany translation in modern language.
The future belongs more and more to the sans serif.

oprion's picture

Here's something I heard a few time but could never actually confirm or source:
They say Luther's Bible, while naturally set in fraktur, used antiqua for passages that mentioned hell.

adamdawkins's picture

I agree with Nick. As a frequent reader of the Bible, I don't want a revival of early Bible Typography, (presuming we're referring to the English/Latin Script, and not Hebrew and Greek) I want something readable that fits in with my every day life as much as anything else I read.

Something I use daily should be usable, so the type should be [usable, function &c] too right?

Rick H's picture

You'll need to specify things like which bible version? Printed in what year? Do you mean ones that were copied by hand by scribes? You could look at insular text like that found in the Book of Kells which is a copy of the 4 gospels if that is what you wanted to focus on.

Bloodtype's picture

I agree with Nick
I like the reference. Don't think non-English people will get it though!

quadibloc's picture

The statement "how we need a revival in Biblical typography and literary type at large" is indeed an interesting one.

The subject of typography for the Old Testament in the original Hebrew is a fascinating one, because of the complexities introduced by vowel points and Masoretic annotation. But I think that what you are talking about is very different from that. However, the situation in which Jewish editions of the Tanakh are found provides a hint at the issue. In that realm, typefaces of a calligraphic and lapidary nature are often resorted to, such as David, Koren, and Hadassah.

An English-language edition of the Bible, on the other hand, is likely to be set in... the 4 1/2 point size of a modern typeface from the 19th Century, some modified Clarendon designed to be especially easy to read, or Times (New) Roman.

Most people, when they read narrative fiction, do so in the form of paperbacks which are set in either Times Roman or Caledonia.

Imagine the joy of being able to go to a bookstore, and pick up a copy of The Lord of the Rings set in Cloister Lightface, or something else resembling Morris' Golden type.

Isn't it time that it should be possible to purchase a family Bible that shows that respect - by means of care and attention - was given to the Word of God by displaying beautiful typography? The choice of face is part of that - Centaur, Bembo, even Garamond are examples of choices that would indicate an intent to make the printed page a thing of beauty.

And, of course, these days computers make it so easy to accomplish at least some of the steps involved in producing masters for a publication that would at least resemble a private-press production of yesteryear. The effort is so much less, and yet the typography of so many books is bland and nondescript, when it could be... a selling point, if nothing else.

blank's picture

Isn't it time that it should be possible to purchase a family Bible that shows that respect - by means of care and attention - was given to the Word of God by displaying beautiful typography?

It would be a wasted effort. Few people still study the bible by sitting down at a desk with a twenty-pound bible in front of them. They do it in groups, in church, whole commuting, or other situations that make portability more important than fine typography. Others use computers to study multiple digital bibles simultaneously. For the minority who actually want a huge, beautiful bible there are plenty of antiques floating around in bookstores and various collectible presses crank out good facsimiles of old editions.

quadibloc's picture

One of the criticisms levelled at the original post is reasonable enough. A thesis does need to be more than sitting down at the piano and singing "We need a guy like William Morris again"... instead, one should investigate why it is that, even though much that William Morris produced is acclaimed, attempting to follow in his footsteps is not where the action is at present.

Thus, the expression of typographic creativity at present is often found in areas like advertising and signage. Books, particularly books of any length, remain constrained by the cost of paper. If anything, the situation is significantly worse than in the 19th Century, given our declining forest resources - thus, the emphasis on the use of recycled paper.

A recent Canadian news story, about temporary availability problems for the book "The Sentimentalists" by Johanna Skibsrud, after it won the Giller Prize, might also be worth looking at as a starting point.

schickele's picture

They say Luther's Bible, while naturally set in fraktur, used antiqua for passages that mentioned hell.

Never heard that. It sounds to me like an urban legend. Here is an example of the Luther Bible from 1545 (the first complete translation was published in 1534) showing the end of chapter 20 of the Apocalypse of John:

(Borrowed here. I didn't find a better version.)

The word »Helle« (»hell«; »Hölle« in modern German) looks pretty like everything else.

r44mercer's picture

First of all, thanks for the useful feedback. I should be more concise in how I explain what I'm studying. A brief overview of typographical emotion will be discussed leading into the topic of Biblical typography and why it's important.

Do typical reading typefaces (those built for legibility) differ enough to produce any substantial psychological response?

If so, in a book as important as the Bible, why do we continue to put cost over reader response? (I'm using Leeuwen's "Typographical Meaning" as a basic approach.)

Lastly, I'd like to explore experimental typographical layout and see if it's a valid approach to the Bible.

r44mercer's picture

Also, when I say experimental, I'm referring to the possibility of setting certain portions in different typefaces, based on their subject - much like the "Luther Legend" referred to on this post. (thanks oprion for bringing that up)

r44mercer's picture

Check out http://www.waldenfont.com/downloads/gbpmanual.pdf

The third page, bottom of fourth paragraph mentions this. Great find oprion!

oprion's picture

Supposedly, It was mentioned somewhere by Albert Kapr.

I'll try to find the quote (if it indeed exists).

Cristobal Henestrosa's picture

I'll try to find the quote (if it indeed exists).

What I have read (on the Spanish translation of Febvre and Martin, L’Apparition du Livre, chapter 3) is that the first writings of Luther were published with Roman letters, but he decided to switch to Blackletter when he needed to talk to his countrymen.

A not-so-unrelated story: Spaniard scribes preferred Blackletter if they were writing in Spanish, but Roman if they were writing in Latin (don’t remember my source, though). And I have seen some examples of pages in Roman using Blackletter for emphasis, as we use Italics nowadays.

oprion's picture

And I have seen some examples of pages in Roman using Blackletter for emphasis, as we use Italics nowadays.

Tschichold gives an example of a page from "Ausfuhrlichen lateinischen Sprachlehre. Leipzig, 1782" where the main text was set in Fraktur, German translations were in Schwabacher, and Latin (including Latin roots in german words) rendered in Antiqua.

dezcom's picture

Through out most history prior to the modern era, Bibles were set in the writing style or type available to Bible producers and approved by client authority. Today, we have hundreds of thousands of options but most Bibles are just printed in the most traditional ways because that is what is expected. That also makes some sense since the words (barring new translations) are the same as they were for generations. I would imagine that if there were enough interest in a more modern typographical presentation, that someone could do it and not lose money by printing it. I think you need to ask who might be such an audience for the Bible and count heads to see if it is worth printing? If your purpose is not that of fulfilling a need of readers but fulfilling a desire of producer, then just do it and put it on one of the "on demand" publishing places. You will get what you crave and if enough others like what you have done, you will recoup your losses. Otherwise, approach assorted Christian groups to see what interest may exist?

quadibloc's picture

It wouldn't surprise me if the version of the "Luther Legend" contained in that .PDF about Fraktur were true. Many unusual versions of the Bible have been published; one that used an "Antiqua" initial letter to begin a chapter (or verse) about a negative topic would not be surprising given that Fraktur was identified with Lutheranism, and Roman types with its rival, Roman Catholicism.

Ah: Google has brought me to the truth. A New History of German Literature by Judith Ryan and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht reveals: "In the revised German Bible of 1541, Röhrer introduced a system of setting some words in Antiqua, others all in upper-case Fracture, and the rest in ordinary mixed Fraktur. In an afterword, Röhrer explains that whenever scripture speaks of Christ, it is set in upper-case Fraktur, whereas passages referring to evil or death are set in Antiqua."

JamesM's picture

> Few people still study the bible by sitting down at a
> desk with a twenty-pound bible in front of them.

Yep. While there's certainly a market for fancy Bibles for church pulpits, presentation copies, etc, most folks want something practical and portable.

I've got 5 or 6 Bibles in my house, but the one I use most often is an iPad Bible app which let's me switch instantly between translations.

dezcom's picture

I'll bet the iPad version is searchable, too, James? Seems like a good idea if you are looking for a particular quote but forgot the specific citation. I assume everyone does not know "chapter and verse" :-)

oprion's picture


And there it is on the page of the Apocalypse!


Joshua Langman's picture

On the topic of experimental bible typography — look up the "Revolve" bible. Printed under the title "Revolve," it is, as I understand it, the complete bible designed in the style of a teen girl fashion magazine, to appeal to ... you guessed it.


JamesM's picture

>I'll bet the iPad version is searchable, too, James?

Yep, it's searchable, can switch instantly between translations and multiple languages, change the font size, bookmark passages, take notes, it has daily reading plans, etc. It's pretty nifty.

Nick Job's picture

Typefaces used in my bibles include ITC Slimbach, ITC Weidemann, ITC Stone Serif (ITC being a common thread, it seems). The ESV online uses Georgia; well, why wouldn't you?

schickele's picture

@ John and Ivan: very interesting, thank you. I found some other clarifications on Google Books:

Georg Rörer (without »h«), a collaborator of Luther, introduced those typographical distinctions between good and evil in a Bible printed in 1541 by Hans Lufft in Wittenberg. Luther disapproved this innovation and this is why this typographical rather unique experiment has been withdrawn in further versions of Luther's Bible (see Marion Janzin / Joachim Güntner (2006): Das Buch vom Buch: 5000 Jahre Buchgeschichte. P. 186).

I haven't found any picture from this Bible yet on Internet. In the example you, Ivan, gave us only the word »und« (written »VND«) is set in Antiqua; the word »Helle« is clearly set in Fraktur, so I guess this is not the right version.

Té Rowan's picture

Looks more like Schwabacher to me.

quadibloc's picture

It could be the right version: instead of setting the initial letter of the verses in question, or the whole verse, in Antiqua, since only chapters really have "initial letters", perhaps the first word of a verse about evil or death was in Antiqua. That would match the photograph.

However, many modern copies of the King James Version set words such as "is" or "are" in italics when they are only implied in the original language, so it's possible that in the Bible pictured, "and" is in all-capitals Antiqua for a similar reason, and this indeed is not the right one.

schickele's picture

Looks more like Schwabacher to me.

Yes, it's a Schwabacher. I just wanted to say »not set in Antiqua« in English.

@John: You could be right. The beginning »VND«, set in Antiqua, could be an indication for the following (presumably negative) text. Here is one last example taken from a 1541 Luther Bible (Apocalypse 19,9–21):

As you can see, they are many »VND« all over the text, but only one is set in Antiqua in the last paragraph (plus the »V« from the initial »VND« of this paragraph). And effectively, this section depicts how the »beast« and it followers are thrown to fire and killed by »the one sitting on the white horse«.

Té Rowan's picture

There is also that German blackletter is not suitable for all-cap setting. The less ornate Antiqua is better for that.

Cristobal Henestrosa's picture

There is also that German blackletter is not suitable for all-cap setting. The less ornate Antiqua is better for that.

Té: as you can see, the printer actually didn’t care about this convention: the page shows five “VND” in Blackletter and only one in Roman.

Té Rowan's picture

Yeah, part or all-Antiqua "and"s in verses mentioning the Beast; Schwabach otherwise. How very immensely bourgeoisly odd.

Nick Shinn's picture

It depends what the publisher's agenda is.
Suppose it is to promulgate Christian behaviour amongst professed Christians.
Therefore, determine which edition of the Bible various Christians use, and correlate this against a measure of Christianity, such as church attendance, charity contribution, or adherence to the 10 Commandments.
This should reveal the "best" design.

For outreach to non-believers, concentrate on the cover design, which is how most publishers prioritize.

Bear in mind that different groups read the Bible for different reasons.
Religious scholars, historians, bibliophiles, writers and lovers of literature may not be Christians.

Kindle offers Serif, Serif Condensed, or Sans options: which is the default in different Bibles, and which do people prefer?

quadibloc's picture

If it's for outreach, then clearly the church doing the outreach needs to be able to afford as many copies as possible.

I'm going to assume the publisher's agenda is to sell a nice-looking Family Bible as a treasured heirloom in which a family can keep a record of the births of its children and so on. Such a Bible is likely to have a few pages with illustrated plates in color, with paintings of various dramatic events. Notes are likely to be present, of a traditional and non-controversial nature: one is more likely to see Ussher's chronology than doubts about I John 5:7. The text will probably be that of the King James Version (unless the target market is Roman Catholics).

Having thus moved the issue out of the upper reaches of devotion and theology to a cultural neighborhood where paintings of Elvis on black velvet are found, we can then ask: since this is an artifact intended to "look pretty" (and, despite the proletarian nature of its surroundings, its purchasers likely are sincere in their faith), why isn't more attention being paid to the typeface?

The answer is probably "well, duh, if we had to typeset this giant book again, it would eat up our profit margin, and we wouldn't be able to sell it for $29.95 any more". Given that there are public-domain etexts of the KJV out there, and you can do wonderful things with laser printers these days, that might change someday.

There is a market for more upscale printed Bibles of good appearance, but I suspect it's very limited.

JoergGustafs's picture

Nick Job mentioned ITC Weidemann.
It was originally designed by Kurt Weidemann as a bible text face and was named Biblica.

Read more here:

or a bit more detailed in the German version:

aarhaus's picture

Of course, Luther’s choice of Schwabacher for his German people’s bible was anything but arbitrary.
But at that time, Antiqua / Roman type was known as the Humanists’ type. The «corporate typeface» of the Roman-Catholic Church in print was still Textur.
After his excommunication, Luther stated that nobody could possibly ever get into heaven who has not rejected the pope’s doctrine. So logically, the legend of the hellish parts being set in a different face than the rest should feature Textur instead of Antiqua.

gaultney's picture

Kurt Weidemann had some interesting but provocative opinions about emotion and typography:

Weidemann, Kurt, ‘Biblica — designing a new typeface for the Bible’, Baseline, 6 (1985), 7–11

My poor summary and response: He felt that a typeface for the Bible must be devoid of romantic emotion and not impose any emotional quality to the text. A neutral face would allow the text to communicate more faithfully and without additional influences of typographic emotion.

Personally, I disagree. There is no such thing as 'neutral' typography. The design and use of type always adds a layer of emotion to the text, and even 'neutral' designs affect the perception and response of the reader.

The Bible is a highly emotional book that is intended to elicit a deep spiritual - and intellectual - response in its readers. The values and variety of that response are affected by its typography and type. That is unavoidable. Type for the Bible can enhance or dampen the response. Fraktur vs. Antiqua is an obvious example, but there are modern ones, too, such as Brian Sooy's excellent Veritas, used by Tyndale House, which enhances the text's dynamic, exciting properties. Unfortunately, Biblica (a.k.a. ITC Weidemann) tends to impart a colder, more distant quality (for a number of reasons). While I myself bought and used ITC Weidemann years ago for a number of jobs, I would not use it if I were typesetting a Bible.

This also holds for non-Latin Bible type. John Hudson's SBL Hebrew is amazing in how it mixes warmth with grandeur, and (I hear) makes the text seem less stodgy then some more traditional designs.

aarhaus's picture

Weidemann’s madness about neutrality is a common phenomenon amongst German designers of his generation (as a side note, Otl Aicher was born in 1922, the same year as Weidemann). Their aspiration for neutrality can only be understood in this context.
So their objectivism, being their way of coping with their innermost experiences, is highly subjective and emotional.

One cannot not communicate, as Paul Watzlawick put it.

That said, I always found ITC Weidemann had a certain warmth to it.

dezcom's picture

"...Otl Aicher was born in 1922, the same year as Weidemann"

Massimo Vignelli was born in 1931, not late enough to escape the neutrality syndrome ;-)

kvaternion's picture

Hi Ryan - if you are interested in a copy of the Design & Production Bible from 2Krogh & Jongbloed, then email me at andreas@2krogh.dk and we'll work something out

- Andreas Krautwald

Randy's picture

An interesting aspect of Biblical typography is that typically readers are not reading in uninterrupted spells for long periods of time. How often does someone sit down and read the entire book of Isaiah in one sitting? More typically a person will read a verse, or several verses, or a chapter, then have a good think, or flip to another related verse.

Which is to say, the demands on the type are more like a reference book than a novel.

Note: I've always wanted to see a bible printed in Storm's Biblon, does one exist?

Alter Littera's picture


You might like to check this post.

quadibloc's picture

Incidentally, a thesis about Biblical typography could include a lot of interesting material, since, despite the present situation, in the past printers did devote much care and attention to at least some of their editions of the Bible.

Thus, for example, Baskerville printed a beautiful edition of the Bible in the typeface that bears his name, pictured in some books on the history of typography.

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