The first polyglot Bible (part 2)

It is very likely, and widely accepted, that Nebrija recommended the printer Arnaldo Guillén de Brocar to Cisneros. Brocar had a good reputation and had exclusive rights to print Nebrija’s works, so he had been printing his books since 1503.

Page of Mark's Gospel in volume 5. Click on image to see enlarged.

Page of Mark’s Gospel in volume 5 (Young.5). Click on image to see enlarged.

The typography of these volumes is also a great achievement. How to present a complex distribution of the different texts was a problem solved ably by Brocar. He cast new types for several of the alphabets used in the project. The Hebrew and Aramaic types are particularly appreciated; they have, as stated by the incunabulist Julián Martín Abad: “clearly more beautiful designs than those we find in the Iberian Hebraic incunabula”. Brocar cast two different Greek types: one in the Aldine style, and the most remarkable, used in the New Testament; “undoubtedly the finest Greek font ever cut” according to the typographer Robert Proctor. The illustration below shows the distribution of the texts in the first volume. The inner column has the Greek text (Septuagint) with an interlineal Latin translation, the central column has the Latin Vulgate, while the Hebrew text is in the outer column.

Pages from the Pentateuch in volume 1 (Young.1). Click on image to see enlarged.

Pages from the Pentateuch in volume 1 (Young.1). Click on image to see enlarged.

At the bottom the page is divided into two columns: the Aramaic text (Targum Onkelos) is in the inner column, and the corresponding Latin translation is in the outer column. In addition, there are annotations in the outer margins to facilitate the comprehension of some complex Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary. The Aramaic text is only present in this volume.

The work comprises six volumes: four containing the O.T., the fifth the N.T. and the sixth the complementary philological apparatus, including a Hebrew-Latin dictionary with a Latin index, an etymological dictionary of Hebraic, Aramaic and Greek O.T. names and a Hebrew grammar. Curiously, the first volumes to be printed were the last two.

Colophon and printer's mark in volume 4. Click on image to see enlarged.

Colophon and printer’s mark in volume 4 (Young.4). Click on image to see enlarged.

A significant part of the work was ready for the printer in 1510, but it was not until January 1514 that the printing started, finishing in July 1517. Traditionally Erasmus gets credit for the first printing of the N.T. in Greek in 1516, but in fact, the Complutensian volume of the Greek N.T. had been printed earlier (1514). Cisneros died before the project was totally accomplished. Leo X sanctioned it in March 1520, and the distribution of the Bible started in 1521-1522. Unfortunately several copies sent to the Pope were lost in a shipwreck. Despite these adversities, the Polyglot had an important impact. Leo X authorised a print run of 600 sets, around 120 of which survive to date.

Three other polyglot Bibles that followed the Complutensian should also be mentioned. First, the Biblia Regia or Antwerp Polyglot (1569-1572), which was commissioned by the Spanish King Philip II, printed by Christophe Plantin and edited by the humanist Benito Arias Montano (also Librarian at El Escorial library). It is essentially a revised and enlarged edition of the Complutensian Bible, including important additions such as the Syriac N.T. and new comprehensive philological apparatus. Secondly, the Paris Polyglot (1645) edited by Guy-Michel Lejay which includes texts in seven languages (with Samaritan and Arabic versions) but lacks any critical apparatus. Finally, the London Polyglot, also known as Londinesis or Waltonian (1654-1657) because it was compiled by Bishop Brian Walton. This includes several apocryphal books and contains a total of nine languages (amongst them Ethiopic and Persian).

In Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo’s words the Complutensian Polyglot Bible is “a monument of eternal glory for Spain, […] one of the great and positive achievements of the Renaissance”.

Manuel del Campo


Further reading

Cabañas González, M. D. (dir.) Exposición el sueño de Cisneros: V centenario de la edición de la Biblia Políglota Complutense. Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá, 2014. S950.b.201.6187

González Sánchez-Molero, J. L. (dir.) V centenario de la Biblia Políglota Complutense: la universidad del Renacimiento: el renacimiento de la universidad. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2014. Parallel text in Spanish and English.

Hall, B. The great polyglot Bibles: a treatise. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1966. (S100.a.96.8)

Norton, F. J. Printing in Spain, 1501-1520: with a note on the early editions of the Celestina. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966. (B410.1)

Pena González, M. A.; Delgado Jara, I. (coords.) A quinientos años de la Políglota: el proyecto humanístico de Cisneros. Salamanca: Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, 2015. (C211.c.630)

Spottorno, M. V. The textual significance of Spanish Polyglot Bibles. Sefarad: revista de estudios hebraicos y sefardíes, v. 62, no. 2, 2002, p. 375-392. Link to full text.

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