What a treasure is hidden behind the two book covers was not recognized until 1952.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin I Collage

A Luther Bible as “peoples’ property”

… and suddenly the GDR People’s Police were waiting at the door: how the historical gem of silk embroiderer Hans Plock (1490-1570) became a matter of state.

by Albrecht Henkys

Just how the Plock bible came from Halle / Saale to Berlin is not known. In 1791, however, it was donated to the Berlin Ratsbibliothek by city president Johann Albrecht Philippi (1721 – 1791). In 1876, city councillor Ernst Friedel (1837 – 1918) was probably inspired by the eye-catching form and numerous annotations to refer the bible to the Märkisches Provinzialmuseum which had been founded a mere two years earlier. Nevertheless, it remained forgotten on the shelves of the museum.

It was not until 161 years later that it accidentally came to the attention of museologists: on 8th and 14th October 1952, collections of the Märkisches Museum that had been relocated in 1943/44 to what is now Frýdlant in Czechia to protect them from allied bombing raids were returned to Berlin. Amongst them, the Plock bible.
Erst 161 Jahre später rückte sie zufällig ins Blickfeld der Museologen: Am 8. und 14. Oktober 1952 wurden Bestände des Märkischen Museums zurück nach Berlin transportiert, die 1943/44 zum Schutz vor alliierten Bombenangriffen ins böhmische Friedland (heute Frýdlant v Čechách, Tschechien) ausgelagert worden waren. Darunter befand sich auch die Plock-Bibel.

Köllnischer Park with the ruins of the Märkisches Museum, Trümmerbahn and “Wusterhausener Bär”, a tower of the old Berlin city fortifications, around 1951
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Erich Jaros
Evidently, Walter Stengel, who was the director of the Märkisches Museum at the time, had come across both bible tomes whilst examining the collections and had recognised the artisan’s hand in the elaborate embroidery. Soon, however, he must have been occupied by the matter of the origin of some exceptionally high-quality drawings, which he found glued into the bible tomes alongside other artworks.

Unlike with the prints, the drawings contained no clue as to their authorship. Moreover, any link to their origin had been blatantly removed and covered by Plock with his own embellishments and text plates. Nevertheless, Stengel had a theory that three of the drawings might come from the hand of Matthias Grünewald.

From that master Mathis Gothardt Nithardt, whose identity it had even been possible to work out as that of “historic Grünewald” just prior to the Second World War.

Police operation to protect “peoples’ property”

Events then unfolded very rapidly: Stengel presented his discovery to long-standing director of the Berlin Museum of Prints and Drawings, Friedrich Winkler, who in the meantime however had moved from East Berlin to the Western part of the city. Encouraged by this, Stengel published his finding in the periodicals “Berliner Museen” and “Zeitschrift für Kunstwissenschaft” (both West Berlin) and held a lecture on 12th December 1952 for the now also West Berlin “Kunstgeschichtliche Gesellschaft”. The sensation then found its way onto the pages of West Berlin’s daily newspapers.

The very next day, two East Berlin police officers appeared at Stengel’s office and questioned him about what he found. Five days later, the police conducted an operation: on 19th December, by order of the “Staatliche Kommission für Kunstangelegenheiten” (quasi the cultural state secretariat of the GDR government), the Plock bible was confiscated on “suspicion of a crime against peoples’ property. Stengel travelled to his son in West Berlin for Christmas and never returned.

Bayerische Landesausstellung turns the focus on the bible

What was now referred to as the “Grünewald Bible” because of the drawings it contained for the moment disappeared into the steel cabinets of state authorities. In 1953, it was then unexpectedly incorporated into the inventory of the Museum of Prints and Drawings of the East Berlin State Museums. For the time being, there was less interest in its first owner, silk embroiderer Hans Plock, and his historical surroundings.

The focus was on Grünewald’s drawings and some of the other glued-in artworks. At the turn of the century, of all places, the Bayerische Landesausstellung “The mystery of Grünewald” then carried out the restoration of the Plock bible and took a close and in-depth look at this object as a single entity, unique in historico-cultural terms. A permanent loan contract was now also concluded between the Museum of Prints and Drawings and the Stadtmuseum Berlin.

For conservational reasons, the two-volume bible is situated in the Museum of Prints and Drawings; the Stadtmuseum Berlin holds ownership however.

Flyer for the Reformation exhibition at the Museum Nikolaikirche, 2017.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Joint research project

After the artworks which Plock had glued into his bible – above all the drawings by Matthias Grünewald – had long been the subject matter of art history research, the exhibition “Vom Kardinalsornat zur Luther-Bibel” by the Stadtmuseum Berlin in 2005 put the spotlight on both bible tomes and their owner. Since then, this extraordinary testimony to the Reformation has gained ever greater interest amongst various academic disciplines.

Publication accompanying the exhibition “Vom Kardinalsornat zur Luther-Bibel”

In 2017, to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, the Stadtmuseum Berlin exhibited the bible tomes once more. At a media station, which is now part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum Nikolaikirche, it is possible to peruse the entire bible. Another feature of the bible, beside the Grünewald drawings, are the marginal notes and diary-like entries made by Plock.

Thanks to the media station in Nikolaikirche, the Plock bible attracted the attention of researchers from Fachbereich II Germanistik / Ältere deutsche Philologie [Department of German / Medieval German Philology] at the University of Trier and Trier Centre of Digital Humanities. Interest swiftly turned into enthusiasm, resulting in a joint research project. What is more, their objective is to make the Plock bible accessible to the public as a digital edition. 

Unusual diary and contemporary document


It was pasted, painted and written on: The Luther Bible of the silk embroiderer Hans Plock (1490-1570) documents in an unusual way the time of the Reformation and the open handling of shrines. Insight into the dazzling history of one of the oldest objects in the Stadtmuseum Berlin.

Zweimal Dürers Albrecht von Brandenburg („Kleiner Kardinal“) von 1519 sind hier zu sehen.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin