“You’re so vain, you probably think the Song of Songs is about you!”: An Illustrated 16th-Century Bible


Hans Holbein, “Expulsion from Eden” (Genesis 3)

Adam and Eve are having a bad day: they disobeyed God, got caught, and are being run out of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. Undoubtedly they’re in no mood to appreciate the invention of death metal, pace the skeletal guitarist shredding the soundtrack to their misery.  Judging by his grin, though, he doesn’t care, certain that eventually they’ll notice his riff’s got a good beat and they can dance to it—that, in fact, they must dance to it …

This woodcut from Hans Holbein‘s Dance of Death and Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti (both produced ca. 1523-1526) also illustrates the third chapter of Genesis in an edition of the Vulgate (Paris: Guillard and Desboys, 1552) annotated by the French theologian Jean Benoît (1484?-1573), a copy of which was recently acquired by the Penn Libraries as part of the Peter Way Collection of Early Modern TextsIts title, Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgata[m] quam dicunt editionem a mendis quibus innumeris partim scribarum incuria, partim sciolorum audacia scatebat, summa cura paríque fide repurgata atque ad priscorum probatissimorúmque exemplariorum norma, advertises the text as “cleansed of countless mistakes which abounded partly from the carelessness of scribes and partly from the daring of dilettantes, and restored according to the standard of the ancient and most commended exemplars” in Latin, Hebrew and Greek.  Benoît’s work was subsequently criticized “for, in effect, adding sections of entirely new translation under the guise of variant readings. It was chiefly seen as useful in demonstrating where the Vulgate differed from the Hebrew and the Greek” (Gordon and Cameron 191). Despite this flaw it sold well enough to be published in multiple sixteenth-century editions, beginning with one printed by Simon de Colines in Paris in 1541 and followed by two more printed by in the same city by Charlotte Guillard in 1549 and 1552.

The twice-widowed entrepreneur Guillard is a fascinating figure.  Lauded by one employee as “a noble spirit beyond that of her sex … a woman of great courage” and by one of her authors as “an illustrious woman [who] worked, as was her custom, with zeal and diligence in the name of the Republic of Letters lest she should in any way deviate from her duty” (quoted in Beech 353-354), she began her printing career by taking over the highly successful shop of her late husband Berthold Rembolt in 1519 when she was probably in her thirties.  A brief stint working solo ended with her marriage to another bookman, Claude Chevallon, in the early 1520s; they conducted business together (as witnessed by their joint appearance in contracts if not in imprints) until his death in 1537.  Thereafter she printed and sold under her own name, sometimes in association with her nephew-in-law Guillaume Desboys (d. 1566).  “Between 1537 and 1557, she printed or published approximately 158 different titles or an average of eight a year,” notes Beatrice Beech.

In size and scope, these books varied from a thirty-one page edition of St. John Chrysostom’s Enarratio in Psalmum centesimum to an eleven volume set of the Corpus Juris Civilis. Her choice of books suggests that she was catering to the student and professional population of Paris as well as to monasteries and other types of religious houses with libraries. She also sold to other book stores. She concentrated on theological and religious works, which accounted for 97 titles or approximately two thirds of her production. She published Bibles and biblical commentaries, including eleven different editions of various works of Denis the Carthusian, the works of the early church fathers like St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and many editions of St. Chrysostom. (347)


Hans Holbein, “Adam Tilling the Ground” (Genesis 3-4)

Benoît’s Vulgate was a natural fit for Guillard’s clients, who purchased enough copies of the first folio edition to justify a second in quarto—with pictures! Guillard illustrated the books of the Old Testament with 92 woodcuts from Holbein’s Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti and those of the New with 124 woodcuts from Pierre Regnault‘s Biblia picturis illustrata (1540). The Holbein cuts are, as his “Expulsion from Eden” demonstrates, particularly lively.  In a neighboring illustration (also part of both the Dance of Death and the Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti), Adam and Death are hard at work tilling the soil while Eve, nursing baby Cain and spinning, clearly has had it with her lot in this fallen world.  She is not alone in her dissatisfaction; Holbein’s Old Testament women seem generally unimpressed by the men in their stories.  For instance, the messengers who have delivered bad news to Job hasten away as if his misfortune might be catching, but Job’s wife looms above above him to demand that he curse God and die (perhaps after calling the fire department to save their burning house?).


Hans Holbein, “Job in His Mourning Blesses God” (Job 2)

Judith calmly deposits Holofernes’ severed head into her lunch bag; her maid, sleeves pushed up to her elbows, seems merely annoyed that she’ll be the one to carry the disgusting thing home.


Hans Holbein, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (Judith 13)

The crowned lover of the Song of Songs preens in his garden, but the lady behind him looks more ready to launch into Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” than to succumb to his charms.


Hans Holbein, “The Lovers” (Song of Songs 1)

The New Testament illustrations offer little to match these.  Pierre Regnault’s cuts are smaller, busier—crowded with figures, they sometimes include multiple scenes from the passage illustrated—and stiffer than Holbein’s. Even Regnault’s apocalyptic visions generally lack drama:  the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 look as if they’re discussing whether they can keep the dreadful beast that followed them home rather than preparing themselves to be devoured by it; the Whore of Babylon‘s seven-headed steed seems equally harmless, especially when combined with her St. Pauli Girl vibe. (Though perhaps that is the nature of temptation …)  On the other hand, the Woman Clothed with the Sun looks properly discomfited by the septicephalic dragon menacing her as her child is borne away by angels—which might explain why Regnault has signed this cut with his initials in the lower left corner.


Pierre Regnault, “The Measurement of the Temple and The Two Witnesses” (Revelation 11) (left), “The Whore of Babylon” (Revelation 17) (center), and “The Woman Clothed With the Sun” (Revelation 12) (right)

All joking aside, Penn’s two copies of this edition of the Vulgate (one held at the Kislak Center and one at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies) are compelling examples of Renaissance illustrated printing and a testament both to the contrasting styles of two artists and to the acumen of a successful French businesswoman.

Works Cited

Beech, Beatrice. “Charlotte Guillard: A Sixteenth-Century Business Woman.” Renaissance Quarterly 36.3 (Autumn 1983): 345-367.

Gordon, Bruce, and Euan Cameron. “Latin Bibles in the Early Modern Period.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Volume 3. Ed. Euan Cameron. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 187-216.

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