A personal tour of the exhibition, Tyndale’s Testament, held in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, from 3 September to 1 December 2002
Brian Johnson

One of the highlights of this year’s Tyndale Conference must have been the exhibition Tyndale’s Testament at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. The exhibition fills about eight rooms of the museum, which houses an important historical collection connected with the printing industry. The building and its contents, which include a 1580’s printing press (thought to be the earliest surviving press in the world), and a vast archive of manuscripts and printed material, have been recognised by UNESCO as being of world importance.

Gergely Juhász, one of the exhibition organisers, told me that during its two-year preparation, he and others had been encouraged by the cooperation received from the city of Antwerp, which had been very generous with financial assistance; by the nine libraries from all over Europe that had loaned exhibits; and by the many academics who had freely given their time and expertise. Gergely explained that one of the purposes of the exhibition was to show that when Tyndale arrived in Antwerp it was a cosmopolitan, go-ahead city with a rich intellectual life. Also, having the technology, in the form of a thriving printing trade, it was an ideal base for the production of his life’s work – the translation of the Bible into English.

Antwerp, Tyndale and the Bible – those are the themes of the exhibition, and even a brief tour revealed that the organisers, in their careful selection of exhibits, had done a superb job in showing the relationships between these themes.

When Tyndale chose Antwerp he did not choose a quiet backwater in which to carry out his work. He was welcomed by the large English-speaking community that was part of the wider European community engaged in trade in the Lowlands. Two exhibits in particular illustrated this. First, a rare print of the front elevation of the “English House” [cat. 26] where Tyndale lived, for a time at least, during his stay in Antwerp. Because the English were in a privileged position in Antwerp at this time, a number of religious dissidents who found it too hot to stay in England were attracted to the city. But it was not too far away so that they could find easy passage back to England via the many merchant ships trading between Antwerp and the east coast of England. Second, a five-language dictionary [cat. 25] printed in 1534, containing a word list in Latin, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish (English had to wait until 1540!). This dictionary was equivalent to the modern tourist’s phrase book, but unlike modern ones, this has four chapters devoted to religious words and phrases!

Arms of Cardinal Ximenez
Arms of Cardinal
Ximenez compiler
of the first
Polyglot Bible
(exhibit 29)

I am sure that Tyndale would have made use of at least some of the large number of Biblical translation aids [cat. 39 to 48] that were printed in Antwerp at about the time of his stay. At this point I mention one of the many poignant exhibits, Tyndale’s last surviving letter [cat. 115]. Written from his prison cell in Vilvoorde, he requests, as well as warmer clothing, his Hebrew Bible, grammar, and dictionary. We don’t know what editions he used, perhaps it was the edition of Reuchlin’s Dictionary, printed in nearby Leuven in 1520 [cat. 45].

As well as the printing of Tyndale’s translations of the Bible, most of his polemical works were printed in Antwerp. Included in the exhibition are The exposition of the fyrste Epistle of seynt Ihon [cat. 97] and The obedience of a Christen man [cat. 98]. You have to ask who could have been responsible for the woodcut used on the title page of this profound theological treatise? An array of naked females does seem totally out of place here!

The best edition, according to David Daniell, of Tyndale’s attempts at perfecting his translation The newe Testament, dylygently corrected and compared with the Greke by William Tindale [cat. 103] is here. In order to distinguish it from inferior editions of the Worms New Testament, hurried out by Antwerp printers in 1531 and 1533, Tyndale, for the first time, put his name on the title page. The exhibited edition also includes Tyndale’s vitriolic attack upon the revision carried out by his former colleague, George Joye. The exhibition catalogue does not spare Tyndale over this, calling it an “unjust and lewd” attack that “does not shed a very good light on the ‘Father of the English Bible’.” I prefer Daniell’s view that Tyndale “was angry and rightly”[2]. As far as Tyndale was concerned Joye had committed the greatest of crimes: he had mistranslated a number of words in order to propagate his own mistaken views on the doctrine of the resurrection.

One can stroll from one case of outstanding exhibits to another. Probably the greatest exhibit doesn’t actually come from Antwerp, but is the only known complete copy of the Worms New Testament of 1526 [cat. 92]. It is in a case in the centre of the room, which for me was at a height that demanded a slight bow towards it in order to view that unique but, again, inappropriate title page.

For me, the most beautiful exhibit was Cardinal Ximénez’s Biblia Complutensis (the Complutensian Polyglot), printed in 1515 in Alcadá, Spain, and published in 1520 [cat. 29]. The cut of the typefaces, particularly the Greek face, is outstanding, so is the page layout, and the quality of the printing. (Which only goes to prove that typographers could achieve great things before the invention of the Apple Mac!) Apparently the Greek New Testament used in this edition is superior to that of Erasmus’s [cat. 33], which was used by Tyndale for his translations. Erasmus rushed to publish his inferior edition in order to beat Ximénez’s, a piece of commercialism that is not uncommon in publishing today, but it is surprising to learn that it happened in the early sixteenth-century!

The ugliest exhibit was a portrait of King Henry VIII (supposedly by Holbein the Younger!) [cat. 17] – did he really look like this?

If you are unable to see the exhibition, the next best thing is to make sure that you have a copy of the catalogue. It consists of nearly 200 large-format pages, plus 10 pages of colour plates. Printed on good-quality paper, and bound as a sewn hardback, it is an excellently-produced resource that will be a must for any serious Tyndalian’s library. As well as containing detailed descriptions of every exhibit, with illustrations of most of them, it contains essays that cover the three emphases of the exhibition: Antwerp, William Tyndale, and the Bible.

Francine de Nave, the museum’s director, writes about the printers of Catholic Antwerp, and shows how many were driven by deep-rooted conviction for reform in religion. She also underlines the importance of the printed page for the spread of the Reformation. Guido Latré’s excellent essay looks at the often-underrated significance of Tyndale in the spread of the Reformation in England and his influence upon the development of the English language. Gergely Juhász gives a detailed look at Bible translations before and during the Reformation. Andrew Hope’s essays on ‘On the Smuggling of Prohibited Books from Antwerp to England in the 1520s and 1530s’, and ‘The Antwerp Origins of the Coverdale Bible’ are worth the price of the catalogue alone.

In her essay, Francine de Nave says that a museum should not be just a place for the cultural elite, but that today’s museum should be “reoriented towards the visitor”. I do hope that what might at first glance be an exhibition for the cultural elite will be seen and enjoyed by many in Antwerp, the city that gave a home and shelter to Tyndale, and enabled him to complete his life’s work of translating the Bible into English (well, most of it anyway).

[1]Tyndale’s Testament, edited by Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, and Guido Latré, Brepols, Belgium, 2002.
  1. 321, Daniell, David, William Tyndale, Yale, London, 1994.

Valid XHTML 1.0!