The Geneva Bible of Elizabeth I

The beautifully bound 16th-century Geneva Bible shown below is one of the Bodleian Libraries’ treasures. This Geneva Bible was presented to Elizabeth I on New Year’s Day in 1584 by the printer Christopher Barker (1529-1599) and was bequeathed to the Bodleian by Frances Douce in 1834. The incredibly intricate embroidered cover is decorated with gold, silver and silk threads with seed pearls, which sit on a crimson velvet background. The imagery includes a symmetrical arrangement of gold stems with Tudor roses. It is believed that Queen Elizabeth I preferred textile to leather covers.

The Geneva Bible, the first mechanically printed, massproduced Bible, was the primary Bible of Protestantism in 16th-century England, replacing the Catholic Bible in use during Mary Tudor’s reign. It is one of the most important translations of the Bible into English and bears witness to a period of great religious turmoil.

The Geneva Bible is of particular significance to the Bodleian Libraries whose founder, Thomas Bodley, was among those who fled to Geneva during Mary’s reign. He returned only after the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1558.

Despite its fragility, this 400-year-old binding is surprisingly well preserved; given its importance, access to the original is limited. Even the very best conventional photography can only offer a static, single perspective of an original. 3D imaging with the Selene has allowed researchers a far closer experience to handling the original than has previously been possible.

A screen capture of the photometric stereo recording, displayed using a 3D viewer in GIS software.

The Selene recording has captured every stitch and embroidered element from the original – even its tiny seed pearls. Rather than simply making a render of the 3D surface by loading both the depth map and albedo (colour) image into mapping software, it is possible to zoom in, fly over the surface of the recording, and re-light it from any direction or height.

This embroidered Bible has significant material features which became increasingly common during Elizabeth I’s reign. During this period the Bible gained an important place in the reading life of women, encouraging deeper engagement, both intellectually and physically, through annotations. Probing more deeply into the materiality of these manuscripts can help us to better understand the piety of the period.