The Gospels in Arabic


Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

The Gospels in Arabic
Woodcuts: The Gospels in Arabic, first edition, 16th century

Woodcuts: The Gospels in Arabic, first edition, 16th century

In the late sixteenth century, the Typographia Madicae was established at the request of Pope Gregory XIII to print editions of the Gospels for dissemination in the East. Its first publication, an Arabic translation of the Gospels, issued in Rome in 1591, posed special challenges.

It was elaborately illustrated with 149 woodcuts designed by the celebrated artist Antonio Tempest‡. The typeface comprised two sizes of lead-cast Arabic type designed by the well-known French typographer Robert Granjon. Contemporary accounts report that Latin texts could normally be printed at the rate of 1,500 sheets a day, while printing in Arabic reduced production to 1,200 sheets a day.

Woodcuts: The Gospels in Arabic, first edition, 16th ce

Two issues of the work were printed at the same time. The more common is the Arabic-only text, which was printed in an edition of 4,000. Duke's copy is one of 3,000 printed with interlinear text in Arabic and Latin. Questions have been raised about the merit of this publication project. Scholars have observed that presenting a work with scriptural illustrations to Arabic-speaking Muslims, when Islam forbids religious illustration, showed little understanding of the culture and almost certainly hindered Pope Gregory XIII's missionary efforts.

Duke's copy of the Gospels may offer some physical evidence that the pope's publishing project was unsuccessful. Bibliographers have noted that a large number of volumes, including the one at Duke, seem to have been released from the press without the title page and prefatory matter. This raises a number of questions: Why were only some copies completed with a title page? Were the other copies, including Duke's, put in storage to be completed pending demand? And if so, was the lack of demand due to the volume's illustrations? Only time, and research, will tell.

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