Mainz Psalter

Mainz Psalter – Verlag Bibliophile Drucke Josef Stocker – Ink. 4.B.1 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)

Mainz (Germany) — August 14, 1457

Numerous innovations in the world's second printed book: the first multicolor printing including two font sizes and printed decorative initials with a printed colophon and details of the date, printer and publisher

  1. Johann Fust (ca. 1400–66) and Peter Schöffer (ca. 1425 – ca. 1503) broke with the Gutenberg workshop in 1455

  2. The first creation of their new printing house in 1457 was a Psalter commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz

  3. It is one of the only examples of a multi-colored incunable because the technique was too time consuming for early printing presses

Mainz Psalter

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  1. Description
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Mainz Psalter

Commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz in 1457, the Mainz Psalter is the second major printed book following the Gutenberg Bible. It was created by two former associates of Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, and was the first publication of their new studio. The work represents many firsts in the history of book printing: it was the first book to have a printed colophon with the date, printer (Schöffer), and publisher (Fust) as well as two sizes of type, printed decorative initials, and is the first book to be printed in three colors – black, red, and blue. Its text is printed in black and red and has numerous red and blue woodcut initials, but the technique was abandoned soon thereafter because the setting and resetting of the different colored types was too time consuming. The Mainz Psalter thus represents a rare example of this process and most early printed works continued to leave blank spaces for artists to draw initials and other decorative elements by hand. 13 copies of the printed book on vellum are known to exist today, including this specimen from the Austrian National Library.

Mainz Psalter

The second book published after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press with moveable type is arguably more significant for the history of book printing than the first due to the number of innovations that it introduced, which are standard today. Printed on vellum in 1457 at the behest of the Archbishop of Mainz, this historically significant Psalter is a marvelously designed work that also features innovations that were abandoned, at least for a time. The history of the printing house that created it also reveals the details of the financing of the world’s first printing house and how the partnership that created it ultimate broke up and resulted in a court case. Thus, the Mainz Psalter is considered to be a precious witness to the incunable period, the genesis of book printing.

The First Colophon

The Mainz Psalter is the first book to have a printed colophon with information that includes the date as well as identifying Schöffer, who actually carried out the printing, and Fust, who ran the business side of things as the publisher. Printed in red ink with a large blue “P” initial with red filigree décor at the end of the codex, the colophon also features the first printer’s mark in history, which consists of two shields suspended from a branch, also printed in red. Written in Latin, the colophon explains how this revolutionary codex came to be:
“This volume of the Psalms, adorned with a magnificence of capital letters and clearly divided by rubrics, has been fashioned by a mechanical process of printing and producing characters, without use of a pen, and it was laboriously completed, for God's Holiness, by Joachim Fust, citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, on Assumption Eve [August 15] in the year of Our Lord, 1457.”
##An Experiment in Multi-Colored Printing
This is the first book to be printed in multiple colors. In order to create multicolored prints consisting of black text with some small red initials and large blue-red initials, the elements that were to be printed in color were individually removed from the typesetting, colored separately, and reinserted before pressing. Although this was already possible with the rudimentary printing presses of the 15th century, it was an expensive and time-consuming process that was abandoned by contemporary printers and not readopted until technology advanced. In the meantime, the vast majority of printed books, including the Gutenberg Bible, left blank spaces for initials to be hand drawn by an illuminator along with any other adornment according to the tastes of the patron. As a result, the Mainz Psalter is one of the only examples of early attempts at multicolored printing.

Fust v. Gutenberg

In order for Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1400–68) to get his printing enterprise off the ground, he needed financial backing, which he got in the form of a loan – 800 guilders in 1450 and a another 800 in 1452 – from the goldsmith, lawyer, and money lender Johann Fust (ca. 1400–66). Their business relationship was further cemented when Fust’s future son-in-law, a scribe who was trained in Paris named Peter Schöffer (ca. 1425 – ca. 1503), was taken on as a printing apprentice and helped design some of the first typefaces.
However, a dispute broke out between Fust and Gutenberg in 1455, the same year the famous Gutenberg Bible was first printed, and as a result Fust sued Gutenberg in court for the 1,600 guilders he was owed plus 6% interest for a total of 2,026 guilders. Schöffer testified on Fust’s behalf and the suit was decided in Fust’s favor on November 6, 1455, giving him control of the workshop and half of the unsold Bibles. He supposedly took the some of the presses and started his own printing house with Schöffer, although there is no concrete evidence for this. It is still debated whether Fust was a patron and benefactor who may have actually instructed Gutenberg and was merely trying to recover his investment, or a scrupulous speculator who robbed Gutenberg of the profits of his invention.


Alternative Titles
Mainzer Psalter
Der Mainzer Psalter von 1457
Size / Format
350 pages / 43.8 × 33.3 cm
August 14, 1457
Textura Uncial
Numerous pen-flourish initials in red and blue
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Benedictine Monastery of Remse
Habsburgs in Innsbruck
Maximilian I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire
Ferdinand II of Tyrol

Available facsimile editions:
Mainz Psalter – Verlag Bibliophile Drucke Josef Stocker – Ink. 4.B.1 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Limited Edition: 295 copies
Detail Picture

Mainz Psalter


Spelled today “Kyrie eleison”, the word Kyryeleyson appearing at the beginning of a list of saints is a transliteration of the Greek Κύριε, ἐλέησον, which translates to “Lord have Mercy” and appears in both the Book of Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew. It is introduced by an elaborate red “K” initial combining swirling tendril patterns with a series of dots and other flourishes. The series of “S” initials that follows vaguely resemble both the ancient yin and yang symbol and the crest that appears on the chest of Superman.

Mainz Psalter – Verlag Bibliophile Drucke Josef Stocker – Ink. 4.B.1 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Single Page

Mainz Psalter

Psalm 14

This Psalm, which is a regular part of Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and other Protestant liturgies, begins with the words: The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” Traditionally ascribed to King David, some claim it dates back to the exile period and it is nearly identical to Psalm 53. It has been paraphrased in various hymns such as Martin Luther's "Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl".

The décor of this page is typical for the manuscript: the neatly printed text with even margins is furnished with a large red “D” initial with swirling, paisley-like patterns and flowers, a smaller blue “E” initial with vegetal patterns, and nine smaller red initials. Despite being from the first generation of printed books, it is remarkably well-executed and evenly designed.

Mainz Psalter – Verlag Bibliophile Drucke Josef Stocker – Ink. 4.B.1 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Der Mainzer Psalter von 1457

Limited Edition: 295 copies
Binding: Embossed leather strap with 10 metal bosses and two clasps
Commentary: 1 volume by Otto Mazal (1969)
Language: German
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding. Untrimmed, handmade rag paper from the Richard-de-Bas paper mill in Auvergne with the watermark "Grape". Memory of the World Document in Austria.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€€
(3,000€ - 7,000€)
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