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.
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.
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:
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.
In the course of his life, Plock glued in 11 drawings, 26 copperplates, and 10 woodcuts into this bible. He decorated, fastened, or weighted these artworks himself using decorative framing, scrolls or other calligraphy.
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 the perspective of the Reformation era, with its overlapping of new teaching and ancient practice, this iconolatry rooted in Catholicism is not unusual. This appears surprising from a current perspective.
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.
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.