Christophe Plantin​—A Pioneer in Bible Printing

JOHANNES GUTENBERG (about 1397-1468) is famous for producing the first Bible that was printed using movable type. But not many people know of Christophe Plantin. He was a pioneer in printing who played an important role in making books and Bibles available to people around the world during the 1500’s.

Christophe Plantin was born about 1520 in Saint-Avertin, France. Favoring a place where the religious climate was more tolerant and economic opportunities were more promising than in France, Plantin, while in his late 20’s, settled in Antwerp in the Low Countries. *

Plantin began his career as a bookbinder and leather dresser. His richly crafted leather work was much sought after by the wealthy. However, an incident in 1555 caused Plantin to change his career. While on the way to deliver a leather case ordered for the ruler of the Low Countries, King Philip II of Spain, Plantin was attacked on a street in Antwerp. Some drunken men ran a sword through his shoulder. Although Plantin recovered from the wound, he was unable to do manual labor and was therefore obliged to give up his trade. With financial backing from Hendrik Niclaes, the leader of an Anabaptist group, Plantin took up printing.

“Work and Perseverance”

Plantin called his printery De Gulden Passer (The Golden Compass). His trademark bore a pair of golden drafting compasses with the inscription “Labore et Constantia,” which means “Work and Perseverance.” The trademark seemed to fit this industrious man.

Living in an era of great religious and political upheaval in Europe, Plantin sought to avoid trouble. Printing work was more important to him than anything else. Though he sympathized with the Protestant Reformation, he “displayed an ambiguous attitude toward the question of religion,” states author Maurits Sabbe. Because of this, Plantin was plagued by rumors that he printed heretical books. In 1562, for example, he was forced to flee to Paris for more than a year.

When Plantin returned to Antwerp in 1563, he entered into a partnership with wealthy merchants, several of whom were known for their Calvinistic beliefs. During a five-year partnership, 260 different works came off Plantin’s presses. These included Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bible editions as well as beautifully illuminated editions of the Dutch Catholic Louvain Bible.

“The Most Important Typographic Achievement”

In 1567, during the period when resistance to Spanish rule was increasing in the Low Countries, Spain’s King Philip II sent the  Duke of Alba to serve as governor there. With full authority from the king, the duke endeavored to extinguish the growing Protestant resistance. Plantin therefore began a monumental project that he hoped would erase all suspicion of heresy. He aspired to print a scholarly edition of the Bible texts in their original languages. For this new edition, Plantin succeeded in obtaining the support of Philip II. The king promised financial aid and sent the noted humanist Arias Montano to be a supervisor of the project.

Montano had a gift for language, and he worked for 11 hours a day. He was assisted by Spanish, Belgian, and French linguists. Their aim was to prepare a new version of the prestigious Complutensian Polyglot. * In addition to the Latin Vulgate, the Greek Septuagint, and the original Hebrew text, Plantin’s new Polyglot Bible included an Aramaic Targum and the Syriac Peshitta, along with their respective literal Latin translations.

Printing began in 1568. The colossal task was completed by 1573. It was fast work for the day. In a letter to King Philip II, Montano wrote: “More is accomplished here in one month than in Rome in a year.” Plantin printed 1,213 copies of the new Polyglot Bible, each composed of a set of eight large volumes. The title page bore a printed illustration of a lion, a bull, a wolf, and a lamb peacefully eating from the same trough, thus depicting Isaiah 65:25. The price of a set not yet bound in volume form was 70 guilders​—a considerable sum, since the average family then earned about 50 guilders a year. The  complete set came to be known as the Antwerp Polyglot. It was also called the Biblia Regia (Royal Bible) because King Philip II had sponsored it.

Even though Pope Gregory XIII approved the Bible, Arias Montano was severely criticized for his work. One reason was that Montano regarded the original Hebrew text as superior to the Latin Vulgate. His main opponent was León de Castro, a Spanish theologian who considered the Latin Vulgate to be the absolute authority. De Castro accused Montano of infecting the text with anti-Trinitarian philosophy. For instance, de Castro particularly noted that the Syriac Peshitta omitted from 1 John 5:7 the spurious addition, “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” (King James Version) The Spanish Inquisition, however, cleared Montano of all suspicion of heresy. The Antwerp Polyglot is considered by some “the most important typographic achievement by a single printer during the 16th century.”

A Lasting Contribution

Most printers of the time possessed only two or three presses. At the peak of his productivity, however, Plantin probably had no fewer than 22 presses and 160 workers. Throughout the Spanish world, he came to have a reputation of being a leading printer.

Meanwhile, resistance to Spanish rule was increasing in the Low Countries. Antwerp was caught up in the conflict. In 1576, Spanish mercenaries who had not received their pay mutinied and plundered the city. More than 600 houses were burned, and thousands of Antwerp’s inhabitants were murdered. Merchants fled the city. This meant great financial loss for Plantin. Moreover, he was obliged to pay the mutineers exorbitant tribute.

In 1583, Plantin moved to Leiden, a city some 60 miles [100 km] north of Antwerp. There he set up a printery and was appointed printer for Leiden University, an institution founded by Calvinist Protestants. The old accusations of unfaithfulness to the Catholic Church reemerged. So Plantin returned to Antwerp at the end of 1585, shortly after the city was restored to Spanish rule. By that time he was in his 60’s, and The Golden Compass had dwindled to only four employees working on a single press. Plantin set out to rebuild the printery. It never quite regained its former status, however, and Plantin died on July 1, 1589.

Over a span of 34 years, Christophe Plantin printed 1,863 different book editions, an average of almost 55 each year. Even today, this would be a staggering achievement for an independent printer! Although Plantin himself avoided taking a firm religious stand, his work promoted not only printing and typography but also the study of the inspired Scriptures. (2 Timothy 3:16) Indeed, Plantin and his contemporary printers contributed greatly toward eventually making Bibles available to the common man.


^ par. 3 The term “Low Countries” refers to the coastal area between Germany and France, comprising modern-day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

^ par. 11 This multilingual Bible was published in 1517. It contained the text in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and some portions in Aramaic. See “The Complutensian Polyglot​—A Historic Translation Tool,” in The Watchtower of April 15, 2004, pages 28-31.

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The building in the city of Antwerp where Plantin and his descendants had lived and worked was opened to the public as a museum in 1877. No other printing house from that period remains intact. Five printing presses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries are on display. Two others​—the oldest known in the world—​date back almost to Plantin’s time. The museum houses about 15,000 matrices used for casting type, 15,000 wood blocks, and 3,000 engraved copper plates. The museum library contains 638 manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 16th century as well as 154 books printed before the year 1501. These include an original Gutenberg Bible dating from before 1461 as well as one of Plantin’s famous Antwerp Polyglot Bibles.

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Arias Montano

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The Antwerp Polyglot contains the Hebrew text, the Latin “Vulgate,” and the Greek “Septuagint,” as well as the Syriac “Peshitta” and an Aramaic Targum along with their Latin translations

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By courtesy of Museum Plantin-Moretus/​Stedelijk Prentenkabinet Antwerpen

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Both images: By courtesy of Museum Plantin-Moretus/​Stedelijk Prentenkabinet Antwerpen