Dürer’s Albrecht von Brandenburg (“The Little Cardinal”) dating from 1519 is seen here twice.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Die Plock-Bibel

A book that has been glued in, painted and annotated: the Luther Bible of silk embroiderer Hans Plock (1490-1570) singularly documents the time of the Reformation, offering a frank and open-minded approach to relics. Insight into the colourful history of one of the oldest objects in the Stadtmuseum Berlin.

by Albrecht Henkys

Inventory record no. 382 of the Märkisches Provinzialmuseum from December 1876 simply reads: “Biblia großfolio, in 2 volumes, with wooden cover overlaid with embossed leather and studded brass corners, lavish imprinted artwork, featuring the image of the Elector of Saxony, inscribed marginalia, also transcripts of a few of Luther’s letters Pp. [and as a note in the margin] addenda inserted a little later”.

The description reveals only little about the complex object and its significance: because this bible is one of a kind. On the pages of the bible, its owner Hans Plock (1490-1570) – deeply entrenched in his time and yet with lay theological ambitions – provides an outline of his political-biographical experiences as well as his private faith and world view.

Who was Hans Plock?

Virtually everything that is known about Hans Plock is what he wrote himself in his bible or left behind in his own records. Born around 1490 in Mainz, he trained as a silk embroiderer, likely also in his home town. However, he did his apprenticeship in Trier between 1509 and 1512.

As early as 1515, Plock was able to attain the title of master craftsman and secured employment at the Court of Mainz Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545). A crest bestowed upon Plock by the cardinal indicates this.
Plock cut out Grünewald’s drawing “Höhnender Pharisäer” and glued it between the text plates.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

As younger brother of Elector Joachim I, Brandenburg Hohenzoller Albrecht had been destined for a career in the church. Known for his shrewd cumulation of responsibilities, his artistic sensibilities, and his ostentation, in 1518, Albrecht topped off this career with the cardinalate, becoming the most influential official in the Roman Catholic Church north of the Alps. Along with painter Matthias Grünewald (around 1480 – around 1530) silk embroiderer Hans Plock is certain to have ranked amongst his closest retinue. Testament to how close the relationship was is the fact that Albrecht even took both men to the coronation festivities of King Karl V in Aachen, and Plock subsequently followed the church dignitary in 1521 to his favourite residence, the Moritzburg in Halle / Saale.

Beside the lavishly decorated vestments of the Cardinal, here in particular he created for the latter’s famous collection of relics, the Hallesche Heilthum, richly embroidered receptacles, so-called reliquaries. In his bible, he subsequently wrote:

“Item ich hab i[h]m ein Bischofshut gemacht, der kost ob hundert dausent Gulden on die andern Bischofshüth, und ist gewis, dass kein thumb- oder state Kirchen in allem teutschland also köstlich gezieret und gschmückt sei gewesen als die Kirche zu halle…”

Freedom from Catholicism

Possibly as a first step in the secession from his Catholic employer, Plock signed in the Citizens’ Book of the city of Halle and bought a house. Evidently, Grünewald also backed away from Albrecht and in 1526 even ended his service at his court. Commissioned with the construction of a “water art” by the city of Halle, in the final months before his death in 1528 he had also lived temporarily in Plock’s house.

Plock himself did indeed remain working for a few years at the Court because a trip to Antwerp is documented for 1532. In Antwerp, Plock was instructed to purchase pearls, gems and textile adornments for Albrecht. However, long before the cardinal was ousted in 1541 from Moritzburg following a 27-year residence, Hans Plock and the cardinal had parted ways. With Albrecht’s exodus from Halle in 1541, the reformation could now arrive here too. In the same year, Plock acquired the two-volume Luther Bible. It is the last edition to have been edited by Martin Luther.

The house bible as a relic of the Reformation

Plock never left anything to chance in all these endeavours: not only did he colour the illustrations and initials of the actual bible print himself. Many of the works glued in were by famous contemporaries, including, alongside Grünewald, Martin Schongauer (around 1450–1491), Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), were also worked and crafted creatively by his hand.

From a total of 7 copperplates, on the left Plock pieced together this “Reformers’ Collage” with the portraits of Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Some of his collages or images supplemented with painting reveal the experienced artisan but who is here – consciously or subconsciously – assuredly moving into new territory: because in Plock’s lifetime, the collage technique was not yet one of the traditional, artistic forms. What is as obvious as it is remarkable is that just as naturally as he would make use of contemporary artworks for the presentation of his bible, Hans Plock also drew on his earlier work on the reliquaries for the Catholic cardinal, in terms of form and design.
Just as he exalted individual motifs to holy images, he used his bible as a kind of shrine to the Reformation. Plock’s creations are not merely redolent of medieval iconolatry, however. They come close to the present-day fan cult.
Pointers, marginal notes, scrolls – an entire hierarchy of levels of meaning
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Annotated and collaged – a life long

Until his death in 1570, in other words for almost 30 years, Hans Plock lived with his bible. In addition to his many margin notes, he also added extensive comments on the theological and societal discussions of his time. He recorded personal recollections and took a stance on past or highly topical political events in the form of lengthy commentaries. Contrary to what one might expect, the most important, cultural and historical richness of the Plock bible is not in the glued-in artworks it contains but in the great abundance of these hand-written entries.

Glued in, annotated, coloured: single-leaf pamphlets with Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
His many, casually added pointers at the edges of the columns, his underlines and hand-written comments demonstrate, on the basis of the varying inks and ageing handwriting, how often he grappled with individual passages of the bible text.

Here, the manner in which Plock approached his bible is not addressed at outsiders but remains private and personal. Even if, in all these questions, Hans Plock may only have been one among many like-minded individuals – with his bible, he has created a document which provides unique insights into life and thinking of his time.

Was für ein Schatz sich hinter den beiden Buchdeckeln verbirgt, wurde erst 1952 erkannt.
© 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.