OSU Libraries’ Exhibit “Openeth the Window, to Let in the Light” on the King James Bible

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library of the Ohio State University Libraries hosted an exhibition for the last few months about this significant contribution to English language and literature. Yesterday, on the exhibit’s last day, I finally spent some enlightening time learning more about this influential book.

In January 1604, King James I convened the Hampton Court Conference, commissioning a new translation of the Bible that would address errors or shortcomings of previous English translations of the Bible. For the next seven years, six teams of translators compared sections to existing translations and other sources in order “to make a good one better.” Since its publication in May 1611, the King James Bible has been recognized as one of the most familiar, widely read translations of the Bible.

“Translation…Openeth the Window, to Let in the Light: The Prehistory and Abiding Impact of the King James Bible” explored the Bible, its medieval and early-English precursors, and literature and art inspired by the Bible’s style, language and content. Eric Johnson, its curator, took great care in selecting examples from the libraries’ collection to help exhibit visitors realize the significance of this work.

The first display case featured an early edition of the King James Bible in all its glory. To provide some historical context, a copy of The History of Great Britain, Being the Life and Reign of King James I, Relating to What Passed from His First Access to the Crown, Till His Death (1653) kept it company.  An embroidered binding on a 1633 copy of The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour caught my eye.

I began my tour by looking at examples of the Bible’s medieval and early-English precursors. A tiny French manuscript measuring 39 by 31 millimeters attracted me first. Likely produced in France circa 850-875 A.D., the manuscript containing the Book of Psalms was the perfect size for its owner to keep close by for reflection either at home or while traveling. Beautiful, hand-executed illuminated leaves from 13th century pocket Bibles followed, featuring 13 lines of text for every inch. This section of the exhibit also taught me about Biblical glossing, the practice of writing interpretative notes and commentary alongside the text.

After studying two cases of examples of English Bibles that had been translated before 1604, I found my favorite piece of the exhibition in the next case: The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in Phonetic Shorthand, printed in Cincinnati around 1850. According to the caption for this work, Sir Isaac Pitman introduced his phonetic system of shorthand in an 1837 pamphlet that included sample shorthand versions of biblical texts of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 100. Fuller phonetic shorthand versions of the Bible became popular during the 1840s, thanks to the efforts of Isaac’s brothers, Jacob and Benjamin. Jacob introduced the system to Australia, while Benjamin spread the word in Cincinnati. This particular piece “openeth the window and let in a lot of light” for me. Why? I’ll share more later this week.

The King James Bible inspired literature and art in ways I never imagined. For William Blake, it led him to visualize and interpret the Bible’s account of history very imaginatively. In 1826, Blake created 22 intaglio engravings to retell the Book of Job. Walking alongside them, I marveled at how compelling these carefully executed drawings were. Several authors have relied on the King James Bible to express scriptural themes and writing styles in their own work, so the exhibit included copies of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Examples of modern fine press editions of the King James Bible further proved the point.

Before I left the Thompson Library Gallery, I picked up a copy of a keepsake that Bob Tauber must have helped to create, and mentally thanked Eric Johnson for the opportunity to spend part of a Sunday afternoon in such an intellectually rewarding way.

If you’d like to learn more about the King James Bible during this commemorative year, the Toledo Museum of Art will display its own first-edition copy of the King James Bible from September 16 through December 3, 2011. Four free programs are also being planned in conjunction with the exhibit. For more information, click here.

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