Danish Bibles - The Rosendahl Collection

Presented by © Paul Rosendahl.

It gives me great pleasure to address you here today, to meet with members of this esteemed society and to have been given the chance to talk about The Rosendahl Bible Collection.

My grandfather Kristian Rosendahl, born 1877, founded the Bible Collection. He grew interested in bible prints already as a young apprentice. He became a master printer in 1896 and already in 1902 he started his own printing business. He was a great book lover and, as he was brought up in a home where the word of the bible was very important, it was natural for him to start collecting bibles. Through the Bible Collection, Kristian wanted to describe the development of the noble art of printing since Gutenberg's invention of movable type in 1450, seen from a Christian as well as a bibliophile angle.

Until 1945 the collection was kept in Kristian's private home. This was most fortunate because during the German occupation, the printing house was bombed by the Germans and totally damaged. After the war, a new building was inaugurated and since then the bibles have had their own little museum. Today, in our newest building dating from 1995, the collection is housed in an annex in front of the main building with entry only through the printing house. The architect calls the annex 'The Silver Shrine'. I am pleased to say that today the Rosendahl Bible Collection is looked upon as one of the more important private collections in Northern Europe, not because of the number of volumes, but because of the rarity and the provenance of the bibles.

Peter's and my contribution today concentrates on the Danish and Icelandic Folio Bibles from the 16th and the 17th Centuries and my part is about the Danes' first complete bible from 1550, the King Christian llI bible. After the Reformation in 1536, King Christian wanted to give the Danish people the chance to read the bible in Danish and therefore wanted to have the first complete bible written in Danish. He engaged a famous and very fine linguist, Christian Pedersen, to make a translation into fine, plain, understandable Danish, a language meant for the common man. Christian Pedersen succeeded in this so well that his use of language became as important for the Danish written language as Tyndale's translation of the bible was for the English language.

King Christian was very interested in the work and words of Martin Luther. The king had met Luther in Worms and heard him preaching, and it is easy to find proof of the influence (on the king) by the two Luther bibles — the Low German Bible of 1533 and Luther's Bible of 1534, as well as by the Wittenberg edition of 1545. The Plat-German Bible is called Die Henne vor dem Ei, 'the chicken before the egg', because this edition came out one year before the 'real' Luther Bible of 1534.

In 1549 the Danish version, with all its alterations, was finally ready for printing. The king, who had needed to find the money for this huge project, actually invented the modem system of subscribing. He forced each and every church in Denmark, each and every parish, to pay in advance one third of the price of the book. It was not only in the Denmark we know today, but in the old Denmark that in those days consisted of Norway, Iceland and the southern part of Sweden as well as the northern part of Germany. He started the subscription well before the printing began. From documentary evidence we know that already in 1546 the tax authorities were told to force the churches to pay. Not all parishes were happy about this arrangement. For instance, the Norwegians were very reluctant, as they were very discontented with Danish supremacy. Nevertheless, the king did get his money, and the book was delivered to all. The final price was 5 rigsdaler equivalent to the price of an ox; nowadays an ox costs about 1000.

The actual costs of the production of 3000 volumes were much higher, but the king eventually managed to find all the money. He had already bought the paper from Holland and had had it stored for several years. To finance this, he had borrowed money from government taxes (a detailed account concerning this sum shows that the king later settled his debt). He also found the book printer. No printer in Denmark could manage such a huge production as this (as Peter has already mentioned), so the king negotiated a contract with Ludwig Dietz from Rostock, Germany which resulted in importing not only the printer and his men, but also his whole workshop. He arrived late in 1548, well experienced, as he was the master printer of the wonderful first Luther bible. According to the contract, he brought with him all the type and matrices, including the matrices for the title page, also used in the Plat-German Luther bible. It was stipulated in the contract that the Danish bible should be printed and produced in exactly the same way and with the same material as the Luther bible.

The life of a book printer is not always easy, neither then nor now, so when Ludwig Dietz presented the first prints to the king, the king was not at all happy. He insisted that the type Dietz had used was too small and not readable and that the whole layout was not as in the German version. He said that if the type could not be any bigger, he wanted to cancel the whole project. Whether the king's eyesight had grown worse or he just wanted to scare the book printer is unknown, but something or somebody must have convinced the king that everything was exactly as in the German bible, because in January 1549 he agreed that Dietz could start the printing and in June 1550 the printing work was finished. The Danish people owe a great deal to King Christian for his visionary wish to have the first bible in the Danish language printed because the result was wonderful and it became a well-loved book. This book is still looked upon as one of the finest bibles. Now to the title page, Erhard Altdorfer's beautiful woodcarving. Later it was used for the Thomas Matthew Bible (originally the Tyndale translation). The picture is very beautiful both in the German and the Danish editions, but is said to be not quite as accurate in the Matthew bible.

Let us examine this title page in some detail. A big tree divides the whole page in two, describing the Old Testament and the New Testament. On the Old Testament side you see Moses on the Sinai Mountain receiving the two tablets of testimony from the Lord. You see the Fall of man and death symbolized by the coffin with a dead body on top. Also on the Old Testament side you will see that the leaves of the tree are dead and dry, whereas in the New Testament half the many leaves are fresh as this part symbolizes the work of Christ our Saviour. You see the crucifixion of Christ and at the foot of the tree the Sinner. John the Baptist and the Jewish rabbi both point towards the resurrected Christ, symbolizing that Jesus will save all sinners.

It is said in Exodus 34 verse 35 that 'the skin of Moses' face shone' while he talked with God. This sentence was for centuries wrongly translated into 'Moses had horns on his forehead'. Therefore, you will notice that Altdorfer has pictured Moses with horns, as you often see in many early pictures and statues of Moses.

The Rosendahl Museum is extremely pleased to possess a very well preserved volume of the King Christian III bible, which is the most precious of the three King Foliants in our collection. It would, of course, have been 'the jewel in the crown' if my collection had owned the original Gutenberg 42-line bible. But we are proud to say that we are the only printing house in the world to have a whole page from the original bible, out of 92 known fragments, as well as a complete facsimile edition.

Editor's Note

The participants were grateful to be given a facsimile print from the Gutenberg Bible of the book of Proverbs chapter 1 as a souvenir of the lecture.

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