Visiting rare illustrated Bibles at the Keller Library

Barbara Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History at Fordham University, paid us a visit last week and spent some time in the Julius Cruse Rare Book Reading Room. She’s been doing research on illustrated Bibles and Christian art in Mexico and graciously allowed your reference librarian to persuade her to write us about what she’s found.

Professor Mundy first describes how these Bibles were used as tools for evangelism.

With the advent of the printing press, illustrated bibles spread through the world. They were particularly important in Mexico, where a vast program of evangelization had just been launched by Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians after the fall of the Aztec empire in 1520. In Mexico, illustrated religious books were not a new phenomena, as indigenous priests in the pre-Hispanic world had used elaborate books to record sacred knowledge and foretell future events. When the Christian Bibles arrived in Mexico beginning in the early sixteenth century, their illustrations expanded the repertoire of religious imagery–to express ideas about sacred history and the nature of the divine–even more.

…and tells about seeing these artifacts in person that she’d studied for so long:

I was fortunate enough to see two Bibles from a print run we know was used in Mexico at the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library at the General Theological Seminary this past Friday–this is one of the few places in the country, if not the world, to hold 1558, 1561 and 1562 editions of the Biblia Sacra published in Lyon by Jacob de Millis. One such book was held in the hands of an indigenous artist in the town of Tecamachalco, Mexico, who used its plates as the inspiration for a set of extraordinary paintings that decorate the choir loft, the ceiling as one enters the church that supports the balcony-like choir above.

These paintings are among the gems of early Mexican art. And on Friday, I held the same edition of the tiny Biblia Sacra in my hands (it’s only about 7 inches by 5, about half the size of a sheet of paper) and I was brought back to the moment of its creation, when these marvelous images would have had the visual impact–and wow! factor–of something like the first television, or the first home computer. They were new technologies for understanding the world, and artists in the New World took up the challenge and a magical place like Tecamachalco is the result.

These are just a few of the treasures in our Special Collections at the Keller Library. Here’s how you can conduct research in our facilities, and we commend to you another of our sister NY-ATLA organizations, the M0BiA Museum of Biblical Images in Art, to explore more about how Bibles, illustrated and printed, spread Christianity around the world.

Thanks again to Professor Mundy for spending the afternoon working on these materials – and for taking the time out of her busy schedule to guest-blog for us!

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