Beinecke Library adds earliest known printed text to permanent exhibit

  • Close-up view of a glass display glass that shows a small yellowed horizontal scroll with Japanese characters in black ink. The scroll is in a white frame. Sitting behind the frame on a raised surface is a miniature wooden pagoda and a photograph showing the underside of the pagoda and Japanese characters there that spell the pagoda maker's name
January 25, 2023

Since 1963, the library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible—one of only 21 complete copies in the world—has been on public view in a prominent display in the mezzanine of the Beinecke Library. This remarkable fifteenth-century Bible, in two volumes, carries the name of its printer, Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg’s innovation—a mechanical printing press with movable metal type—revolutionized book manufacture in the Western World, allowing mass production of printed books for the first time and increasing literate people’s access to knowledge. 

To expand the story of print history, Beinecke has paired the Bible with another remarkable printed object, one even older than Gutenberg’s: a woodblock-printed scroll produced in Japan between 740 and 750 CE. The texts on the scroll are darani, prayers of thanks to Buddhist deities. The Empress Regnant Shōtoku commissioned the making of 1 million copies. The scrolls were coiled into wooden pagoda-shaped containers and distributed to Japan’s Buddhist temples. (Yale Library has several of these prayer scrolls in its East Asia Collection.)

This new display—of the Bible, the scroll, a wooden pagoda, and a photograph of the pagoda-maker’s mark—will be on permanent exhibit at the Beinecke. To give visitors the opportunity to see both of these important printed objects, one volume of the Gutenberg Bible will be held in storage, and the other will be displayed alongside the prayer scroll. The Bible volumes will alternate for the purposes of preservation.

Read more about the new Beinecke display in YaleNews.

—Deborah Cannarella

Image: The eighth-century woodblock print of Buddhist prayers on display at the Beinecke, shown with its wooden pagoda container. Also on view is a photograph of the makers mark that appears under the pagodas base. Photo by Andrew Hurley