The first Bible printed in German appeared as early as 1466. The present edition is usually called the ‘ninth German Bible’; the ‘eleventh’, however, would be more correct, if one includes the Low German Cologne Bibles in the chronological sequence of German Bibles. Anton Koberger’s edition is regarded typographically the finest and is, without doubt, the best-known and the most influential of the eighteen German Bibles preceeding Martin Luther’s translation.
All German Bibles before Luther were translations of the Latin Vulgate. Koberger’s text is largely based on the editions of Günther Zainer in Augsburg (c. 1474/75 and 1477). It is further clarified and improved according to the Vulgate, as Koberger points out in the colophon: für all ander vorgetrücket teutsch biblen lauterer, clarer und warer nach rechter gemeyner teutsch, mit hohez und großem vleyß gegen dem lateynischen text gerechtvertigt. Instead of a register, Koberger provided short summaries above almost all chapters and Psalms. This text version became also the basis for the text of Dürer’s Apocalypse edition.
or the illustration of this Bible, Koberger used the series of 108 woodblocks published before in the two Low German Bibles printed in Cologne in 1478-1479. It is assumed that Koberger, thanks to his wide business connections, had already taken part in the financing of the Cologne project, and thus obtained the rights to further utilization of the expensive woodcuts.
Compared to the preceding Bibles, the woodcuts are very large (c. 120 x 190 mm). For the first time (in the Cologne Bibles) they require the width of the print space over two columns
thus providing enough room for two scenes in numerous images. For the most part they are heavy in outline, and the style is characterized by hard and angular lines; shading is in straight parallels, and a series of short parallel strokes is often used to pick out the ground, as in Dutch woodcuts of the period. The compositions are mainly based on a series of pen-drawings in a Lower Rhenish manuscript History Bible (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, ms. germ. fol. 516) of about 1450/60, executed by an artist from (or trained in) the Netherlands. The majority of the woodcuts are based on that Bible; these are all narrative, illustrating the stories of the Old Testament. Further woodcuts introduce Biblical authors, such as King David or the Evangelists, similar to Zainer’s edition of approximately eight years earlier. The ‘portraits’, and moreover, the illustrations of the Apocalypse, are considered to be new creations by the Cologne Master. The illustrations of the Apocalypse even inspired Dürer’s famous series of 1498. Twenty-five of the blocks have been reduced in order to fit exactly into Koberger’s layout, with the left and/or right outer frame lines cut away.
The Cologne Bibles were intended to serve the Low German-speaking area, which is why they were printed in two versions with different dialects. The present High German edition printed in Nuremberg, became far more widely known. Scholars estimate a print run of 1,000 to 1,500 copies, and thus the spectacular woodcuts spread far to influence following Bible editions, such as Grüninger’s German Bible of 1485 with reduced copies of these woodcuts, and even the Malermi Bible (Venice 1490), and the Lübeck Bible (1494). The original woodcuts were viable well into the 16th century, as they were used again for the Halberstadt Bible of 1522.
For more on Early German Printed Bibles, please see this post on the Post-Gutenberg Era.