Johann Gutenberg Indulgence

Recently, we had a very specific imaging request for part of an early printed document, created in 1454. The letter of indulgence to support a campaign against the military successes of the Turks. Date of issue: 27 February 1455, most likely printed by Johann Gutenberg.

The request was for a specific macro shot of part of the document, photographed with a ‘raking’ light source. The extreme angle of raking light reveals subtle changes in the shape of a surface, in this case, raking light was used to see the impression of the type into the surface of the vellum.

Johann Gutenberg indulgence, photographed with a raking light source.

To get the most extreme of raking light to show up so much of the detail clearly, we used a very special piece of conservation equipment, a Fiber Optic Illuminator. The cold light source uses flexible fiber optics to allow extremely accurate control. When used in collaboration with a 120mm Mamiya Macro lens, and the Phase One p65+ digital back, an incredible amount of detail can be captured.

How the image was photographed

Stan Knight, who is using the image in his research, has kindly elaborated for us;

“I am working on a book to be called Historical Types, as a sequel to my survey of ancient calligraphy called Historical Scripts. Most books about the history of printing show reproductions of book pages which are so poor as to be quite useless to serious students of type design. The illustrations are often tiny, out of focus, or give a perspective view of the page. Books which are specifically about type design are not much better (an exception is the older Atlas of Typeforms). For example, the classic two-volume Printing Types by Daniel Updike shows types as black and white line reproductions, so that all subtlety is lost. Most recently, a very important book about French 16th-century types actually uses just photocopies for its illustrations! (Vervliet, French Renaissance Printing Types: a Conspectus.)

Most photography of early books and manuscripts aims to simply record the text on the page (or if working from a palimpsest, uses infra-red and ultra violet light to reveal the underlying text). But students of type design need to see the impression of the type into the surface, the ‘squeeze’ of the ink from the type, and the quality of the paper or vellum on which it is printed. This is best achieved by a degree of ‘raking’ light. The photographers at the John Rylands Library have been most accommodating to my requests for such unusual techniques, and their results have been outstanding. Their sharply-detailed enlargements vividly capture the essential elements of the type impression.”

Stan Knight

Stan’s book ‘Historical Scripts From Classical Times to the Renaissance’ is available from Oak Knoll publishers here.

The complete indulgence, along with others, can be found in our Luna collection here.


One thought on “Johann Gutenberg Indulgence

  1. […] CHICC carried out some interesting digitsation work of the Rylands copy of the Mainz Psalter, and a Gutenberg Indulgence for book which is now […]

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