Detail map of Altstadt, Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany Overview map of Altstadt, Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

A: Altstadt, Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

The Mainz Psalter....without "Any Driving of the Pen"

Mainz Psalter

Page opening of the copy of the Mainz Psalter printed on vellum from the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle.

On August 14, 1457 Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, a scribe who adopted the new technology of printing, published the Psalterium latinum (Mainzer Psalter) at Mainz. The work is cited in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue ip01036000 as Psalterium. With canticles, hymns, capitula, preces maiores and minores. There are two issues: "a) of 143 leaves b) of 175 leaves, the latter designed for use in the diocese of Mainz." All known copies are printed on vellum.

This magnificent book was:

• The first printed book to include a colophon giving both the name of the printer and the date of printing.

• The first work to incorporate color printing, with initial letters printed in red, light purple, and blue (from an engraved compound metal plate).

• The first printed book to include music; Schoeffer left blank space on several pages for users to draw in the staves and notes, As a result, some copies have 4-line staves, some have 5-line staves, some have gothic music notation, and some have roman notation. Some copies retain the blank spaces.

The colophon of the Mainz Psalter boasted of the new technology involved in its production. The colophon reads in translation:

“The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen. . . .”

The color printing in the Mainz Psalter was accomplished by means of compound printing. In this process the metal type for the initial letters was made in two interlocking sections. These could be taken apart for separate inking with the colors, and then reassembled for printing in a single passage through the press. Compound printing required great skill in metal working, and the inking and printing process was unusually laborious.  After using the process once again for their second Psalter of 1459 Fust and Schöffer reverted to conventional printing. According to Gascoigne, the compound printing process was not revived until it was applied in England to prevent forgery in bank notes in the nineteenth century.

Ten copies of the first Mainz Psalter survived, and according to the ISTC, nearly all surviving copies are either incomplete or fragmentary.

The only complete copy of the 175 leaf version is preserved in the Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. That copy is also the only one to include on its colophon leaf the first printer's mark: the two linked shields of Fust and Schöffer hanging from a branch, the first of which was inscribed with the Greek letter χ for Christ, the second inscribed with the Greek letter Λ (for logos = word).  None of the other extant copies of the 1457 psalter include this mark, and it is unclear whether it was originally published with only some of the edition, or might have been added to the colophon leaf of unsold sheets at some later date, after much of the edition had been distributed. (My thanks for Paul Needham for clarifying the problem of the printer's mark in the first Mainz Psalter.) In November 2013 a digital facsimile of the copy in Vienna was available at this link.

Gascoigne, Milestones in Colour Printing 1457-1859 (1997) 1.

(This entry was last revised on 09-23-2016).

Timeline Themes

Related Entries