Picturing the Word
Bible Illustrations from the 15th -16th Centuries

Biblia Pauperum & 15th Century Bible Illustrations

Biblia Pauperum was a “Bible” designed for use by poor priests, or travelling Franciscans, in teaching the people.  The books were first produced in manuscript in the 13th century, but by the 15th century were being printed as block books.  Block books, printed from carved wood blocks, usually consisted of about 50 leaves.  Each leaf consisted of both pictures and text, all carved from one wood block.

The Biblia Pauperum was a summary of the most important events of the Old and New Testaments.  The New Testament event was illustrated at the center of the page.  Illustrations of an Old Testament event which prefigured the New Testament event was placed on each side.  At the top and bottom of the page were double windows for the prophets, with words from their writings inscribed as coming from them. A summary of the scenes is placed at the top of the page. The entire page is organized to encourage meditation on the unified truths of Scripture.  What theme is each page teaching by word and picture?

Woodblock prints were very much like coloring books and were designed to be colored in by hand.  The colored illustrations of Biblia Pauperum shown here are a facsimile edition of the forty-leaf blockbook in the library of the Esztergom Cathedral in Hungary. The uncolored leafs are a facsimile of the British Library’s Biblia Pauperum. Each date from c. 1450.

Biblia Pauperum, Page XXV. Facsimile of original, c. 14Biblia Pauperum50, in Esztergom Cathedral Library, Hungary

 The central New Testament scene is the women meeting an angel at the empty tomb when they come to embalm Jesus’ body:

  • The left hand Old Testament scene is of Reuben (Genesis 37:29) looking for Joseph after his brothers threw him in the well.
  • On the right, the bride from the Song of Solomon is looking for her bridegroom.
  • Words of the two top prophets are from Isaiah 55:6 (“Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.”) and Psalm 105:3 (“Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice, that seek the Lord.”
  • The words of the two bottom prophets are from Micah 7:7 (“I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me”) and Genesis 49:18 (“I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord.”).

Biblia Pauperum, Page XXVII. Facsimile of original, c. 1450, in Esztergom Cathedral Library, Hungary

Biblia Pauperum, Page XXVII The Center New Testament figure is Christ appearing as a gardener to Mary Magdalene.

  • The two Old Testament figures on either side are of Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan. 14:39-40) and the bride finding her bridegroom in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 3:4).
  • The words of the prophets above are from Psalm 9:10 (“Thou, Lord, has not forsaken them that seek Thee.”) and I Samuel 2:1 (“My heart rejoiceth in the Lord.”).
  • The words of the two bottom prophets are from Isaiah 61:10 (“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God.”) and Hosea 2:14 (“I will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her.”).

Biblia Pauperum, Page XXX, Facsimile of original, c. 1450, in Esztergom Cathedral Library, HungaryBiblia Pauperum, Page XXX

  •  The central New Testament scene is Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
  • The Old Testament scene on the left is Enoch being taken to heaven (Genesis 5:24).
  • On the right, Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:11-13).
  • The words of the top prophets are from Psalm 47:5 (“God is gone up with a shout: the Lord with the sound of a trumpet”) and Isaiah 63:1 (“Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah?”).

The words of the bottom prophets are from Deuteronomy 32:11 (“As an Eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young,”) and Micah 2:13 (“for he shall go up that shall open the way before them.”).

Biblia Pauperum, Page XXXI., Facsimile of original, c. 1450, in Esztergom Cathedral Library, HungaryBiblia Pauperum, Page XXXI

  •  The central scene, from the New Testament, is of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the early Christians in Jerusalem.
  • The Old Testament scene on the left is of Moses receiving the law and the 10 commandments from God on Mt. Sinai.
  • On the right is Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel, when God sent down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice.
  • The words of the two top prophets are from Psalm 104:30 (“Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created”) and Wisdom 1:7 (“For the spirit of the Lord fills the world…”. Wisdom is an apocryphal book).
  • The words of the two bottom prophets are from Ezekiel 36:27 (“I will put my Spirit within you…”) and Joel 2:29 (“also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit”).

Biblia Pauperum, Page I, Facsimile of original, c. 1450, in British Library

  • The central New Testament scene is of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will have a son. The Holy Spirit coming upon Mary is shown in the form of a dove. Mary is reading the Word of God as she begins to bear the Word of God, Jesus.
  • The left Old Testament scene shows God cursing the serpent by saying the woman will crush the serpent’s head as he will lie in wait for her heel (Genesis 3:14-15)
  • The right Old Testament scene is Gideon asking for a sign of victory in the fleece made wet with dew (as Mary was endowed with the Holy Spirit; Judges 6:36-38).
  • The Scriptures from the two top prophets are Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son.”) and Psalms 133:3 (“The Lord shall descend like dew upon the fleece.”).
  • The Scriptures from the two bottom prophets are Ezekiel 44:2 (“This gate shall be shut, and it shall not be opened.”) and Jeremiah 31:22 (“The Lord hath created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall compass a man.”)

Biblia Pauperum, Page II, Facsimile of original, c. 1450, in British LibraryBiblia-Pauperum-Annunciation-of-Mary

  • The central New Testament scene is of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus.
  • The Old Testament scene on the left is of Moses and the Burning Bush.
  • The scene on the right is of Aaron’s rod that blossomed.
  • The two Scriptures from the top prophets are Daniel 2:34 (“A cornerstone was cut out of a mountain without hands.”) and Isaiah 9:6 (“A child is born unto us, and a son is given to us.”).
  • The two Scriptures from the bottom prophets are Habakkuk 3:2 (“O Lord, I have heard Thy hearing and was afraid.” And Micah 5:2 (“Thou Bethlehem the land of Judah shall not be the least among the princes of Judah.”

Biblia Latina (cum postillis Nicolai de Lyra), vol. III, Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493

Biblia Latina, vol. III
Ezekiel’s Vision

Nicholas de Lyra (1265-1349) was the most illustrious of all the medieval commentators on the Bible.  After the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, de Lyra’s commentary was the first Bible commentary printed.  DeLyra believed the literal sense intended by the author of the Scriptural text  was the primary meaning of the text.  De Lyra’s illustrations of Ezekiel’s vision and of Ezekiel’s plan for the new temple and city were designed to help readers understand the text itself.











Ezekiel's Plan for Temple
Ezekiel’s Plan for Temple

16th Century Bible Illustrations

Leaf from de Legende Aurea or Golden Legend. Jacobus de Voragine. London: Wynken de Worde, 1527

 An illustration of Gospel writer Luke is placed at the beginning of the account of St. Luke’s life.  At Luke’s side is an ox, which had become an emblem of the writer of the third gospel.    During the middle ages, each of the Gospel writers had a particular emblem, derived from the vision at the beginning of  Ezekiel – an angel or man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John.

ken de Worde, 1521


De Legende Aurea or Golden Legend By Jacobus de Voragine.  London: Wynken de Worde, 1521

Golden Legend in 1483This illustration from the 1521 English version of the Golden Legend is of God talking to Moses (shown with horns) at the burning bush.  Though at the time it was illegal to print any portion of the Scriptures in English, William Caxton included a translation and adaptation of large sections of the Bible before the lives of the saints in the original Golden Legend.

Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, first compiled the Golden Legend, a collection of lives of the saints, about 1275.  It was immensely popular and was translated into most of the vernacular languages of Europe.

William Caxton, England’s first printer, printed an English version of the Golden Legend in 1483.  The 1521 edition on display  was printed by Caxton‘s successor Wynken de Worde.  It includes 84 woodcuts illustrating the text.  Only about 10 copies of this edition are known.

About the time this book was printed in England, William Tyndale was on the Continent translating the New Testament into English.

Michelangelo's status
Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses shows him with the traditional “horns”.

Many of the depictions of Moses during the middle ages and Renaissance show Moses with horns.  This is based on Jerome’s mistranslation of the Latin Bible in the 5th century.  When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Law, Exodus 34:29 says, “the skin of his face was radiant.”  The Hebrew word “radiant’ is “karan.”  Jerome took the verb “karan” to be the noun “keren”, which means a “horn”.

Ancient Hebrew had no written vowels, so it might be possible to misunderstand the two words, but Jerome should have realized from the context that his translation was ridiculous. However, Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) that Moses “grew horns” became the accepted translation of the medieval church.



Historiarum Memorabilium ex Exodo, Lyon, France: Jean de Tournes, 1558Jean de Tournes, 1558

 Illustrations shown are of the Egyptian plagues of locusts and darkness from the book of Exodus.  The Historiarum Memorablilium contains 141 woodcut prints by Bernard Salomon (1508-1561), a foremost artist of the period.  Salomon created over 1600 book illustrations, but was most noted for his Biblical illustrations. Printer Jean de Tournes had Flemish scholar Guillaume Borluyt write verses for Salomon’s illustrations.  Borluyt’s verses were easy to memorize, and Salomon’s woodcuts inspired many later artists.

Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti, Lyons, France: Ioannem Frellonium, 1547, 1869 facsimile

Illustrated are two scenes from the book of Exodus: Illustrated are two scenes from the book of Exodus

  • the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry ground while Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the sea;
  • the Israelites gathering manna in the wilderness.

Each picture is accompanied by a summary of the scene in Latin and an interpretation of the event in French poetry.  The  90 Old Testament illustrations in this work are by the noted Tudor artist Hans Holbein.  Many are copied from the Cologne Bible or earlier Bible pictures.  The verses are by the French poet Nicholas Bourbon.  Both received patronage from English Queen Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife (Bourbon called Anne “one of God’s beloved servants”) and were sympathetic to the Reformation.  Holbein became court painter for Henry VIII, surviving the fall of his patrons Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cromwell.

Novum Testamentum, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Basel: Johann Froben, 1518-1519Novum Testamentum, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Basel: Johann Froben, 1518-1519

The title page of the second edition of Erasmus’ New Testament is not what one would expect for a Bible.  Cupid is shown on the left border; Venus on the right.  The top border illustrates the myth of Apollo and Daphne.  The lower border illustrates the “Calumny of Apelles.”  The woodcut borders were done by Ambrosius Holbein, brother of Hans Holbein the Younger.  Erasmus’ printing of the Greek New Testament, accompanied by his Latin translation, was part of the Renaissance return to the heritage of antiquity, which included Greek and Roman mythology as well as the text of the Bible.

Biblia, das ist, Die Gantze Heilige Schrifft, Martin Luther, translator, 1532 first edition, 2003 facsimile

Martin Luther, translator, 1532 first edition, 2003 facsimileMartin Luther’s German Bible, first published in 1534, made the Bible accessible to the German people.  The first edition was vividly illustrated with 124 hand-colored woodcut illustrations from the workshop of Lucas Cranach, a Renaissance artist who embraced the Reformation and became a friend of Luther.   Martin Luther, translator, 1532 first edition, 2003 facsimile Here are the illustrations of Elijah ascending in a chariot and Jesus with a sword from his mouth from Revelation.



Biblia, The Byble: that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, Translated by Miles Coverdale. 1535.

Biblia, The Byble: that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New TestamentThis first printed edition of a complete English Bible, and the first English Bible allowed in England,  had 68 woodcuts, copies of Hans Beham’s illustrations in a Bible published in Frankfurt.  The elaborate title page was designed by Hans Holbein the Younger and is similar in layout to the Biblia Pauperum.  Look closely and note these features:

  • At the top of the entire picture is the Hebrew Sacred Name for God, indicating that the Word of God comes from God.
    • To the left is a picture of Adam & Eve’s primal sin with the Scripture, “In what day so ever thou eatest thereof, thou shalt dye.”
    • To the right is the resurrected Christ and the words, “This is my dear son, in whom I delight, hear him. Matt xvii”
  • The left hand block has pictures from the Old Testament of
    • Moses receiving the tables of he law (Exodus xxi) with the words, “These are the laws that thou shalt lay before thee.”
    • Reading of the law by Ezra (3 Esdras 9)
  • The right hand block has pictures from the New Testament of
    • Jesus giving His last charge to His disciples with the words, “Go your way in all the world and preach the Gospel.” (Mark 16)
    • Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2)
  • The bottom block depicts Henry VIII seated on his throne with the royal arms below. Henry presents the Bible to a group of bishops and  nobles, indicating that he is the Supreme Authority of the Church of England
    • In the left corner David stands with his harp with the words, “O how sweet are thy words unto my throat, yea more than honey…” (Psalm 119)
    • In the right corner is St. Paul holding a sword (emblem that he was beheaded) with the words, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ for it is the power of god.” (Romans 1)

The Byble in Englyshe, The Great Bible, edited by Myles Coverdale, 1st edition.  London: Richard Grafton & Edward Whitchurch, 1539.

This Bible was approved by Henry VIII for public use in the churches.  Both the images and Scriptures on the title page The Byble in Englysheconvey a definite royal message: the King had authority from God to give the Bible to the people. Notice these features:

  • At the very top of the page, overseeing all, is a very Christ-like face, depicting God. The words on the ribbons coming from God the Latin for 2 Scriptures
    • “So the words also that come out of my mouth shall not return again void unto me, but shall accomplish my will.” (Isaiah 55:11)
    • “I have found a man close to my own heart, which shall fulfill all my will.” (Acts 13:22)
  • At the top right hand corner, facing God is King David (whose face looks very much like Henry VIII’s), with the words from Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet”
  • Central to all is the figure of King Henry VIII, whose crown has been removed in deference to God The King hands the Verbum Dei (the Word of God) to the leaders of the Church, (Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury), and the Civil Government (Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal).
    • Archbishops and bishops approach Cranmer on the left, and five nobleman approach Cromwell on the right.
    • To Cranmer Henry says “Such things command and teach” (I Timothy 4:11)
    • To Cromwell he says, “Judge righteously; hear the small as well as the great.” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17
    • To everyone Henry Says, “My commandment is, in my dominion & kingdom, that men fear and stand in awe of the living God.”
  • In the left middle picture, Cranmer passes the Bible to the clergy with the words, “Feed ye Christ’s flock” (I Peter 5:2)
  • On the right middle picture, Cromwell hands the Bible to the laymen saying, “Shun evil, and do good; seek peace and ensue it.”
  • At the left top of the bottom frame, a preacher urges his people to pray and give thanks for their king (I Timothy 2:1-2). The congregation responds, “Long live the King”.

The. holie.  Bible.  conteyning the olde Testament and the newe. The Bishops’ Bible, 1st edition. London: Richard Jugge, 1568

1572-Bishops-Isaiah-The Bishops’ Bible was a revision of the Great Bible made by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by many bishops and Bible scholars.  Some of the pictures throughout the Bible were copied from earlier Bibles, such as the Cologne Bible; others were new.  Many were greatly offended by the pictures which illustrated God the Father.  Following John Calvin, they believed pictures of God defaced His glory.   The picture at Isaiah 6, shown here, with Isaiah before the throne of God high and lifted up, was especially objectionable to many.  The interesting history of this engraving testifies to the connectedness of much of 16th century Bible printing.  Drawn by Virgil Solis for a Lutheran Bible published in Frankfurt in 1560, it was also used in a 1566 Dutch Bible published in Cologne, a Latin Bible published in Antwerp in 1570, as well as in this 1568 English Bishops’ Bible.

The Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament.  London: Christopher Barker, 1577 and Edinburgh: Alexander Arbuthnet, 1579. 

In the 1579 edition of the Geneva Bible, the original frontispiece illustration of the Israelites’ deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea is placed in Exodus, with a detailed explanation of the event’s significance, summarized in 4 points:he Holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament

  • In this world, the Church of God will be afflicted in one way or another.
  • Ministers of God (like Moses) will be spoken evil of and complained against.
  • God does not deliver his Church out of dangers quickly, but exercises their faith and patience under continuing troubles.
  • When dangers are the greatest, then God’s help is most ready to help. Israel had on either side of them huge mountains, the sea before them, and their enemies behind them. There was no way of escape – then God helped.

The Bible, That is, the holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and New Testament. London: Christopher Barker, 1599holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and New Testament

 The Geneva Bibles contained detailed drawings of the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the clothing of the priests.

The Holy Bible, that is the holy Scriptures conteined in the Old and New Testament.  London: Christopher Barker, 1599

 The Geneva Bibles also had several maps, including maps of 1633-Geneva-map-opf-garden-of-Eden

  • The Garden of Eden
  • Map of entering the Promised Land
    Map of entering the Promised Land

    The Israelites entering the Land


















  • Palestine in the New TestamentPalestine in the New Testament