The title page of the 1559 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion bears the device of its printer in Geneva: an olive tree shorn of several branches. The broken-off branches are pictured mid-fall and surrounded by the motto Noli altum sapere, “Do not be arrogant.” The tree also bears bandages where other branches have been grafted in.
An earlier version of this device, seen in the 1531 Thesaurus Latinæ linguæ, appends the phrase sed time, “but fear.” The man in the woodcut could be the apostle Paul, author of these words in Romans 11:19–20. Then again, the stones around the man’s feet suggest that the figure could also be Stephen, whose convicting preaching and martyrdom is portrayed in Acts 7.
The conjunction of these two biblical allusions here is significant because the device belongs to the typographer, printer, and scholar Robert Estienne, or “Robertus Stephanus.” Estienne’s life and career displayed many of the marks of the Reformation.
The Royal Typographer
Estienne was not only a significant printer on the Continent during the early- to mid-sixteenth century, but he was a scholar of the Bible and classical literature as well. While working in Paris during the rule of King Francis I, such was his skill that Estienne was named “Royal Typographer”: the king’s printer in Hebrew and Latin in 1539, and then the king’s printer in Greek in 1542.
The king of France understood well the new humanist impulse toward the study of ancient texts. Estienne wrote, “Far from grudging to anyone the records of ancient writers which he at great and truly royal cost has procured from Italy and Greece, he intends to put them at the disposal and service of all men.”
During his years in France, Estienne compiled and printed many linguistically focused books: a Greek primer, a Latin–French dictionary, and the Thesaurus linguæ latinæ. He also began work on the important Thesaurus linguæ graecæ, which would serve as a standard of Greek — and therefore biblical — lexicography until at least the 1800s.
Back to the Sources
As with so many Reformation-era scholars, Estienne’s love of ancient classical literature went hand in hand with a focus on the Bible in both the Latin Vulgate translation and its original Hebrew and Greek versions. He printed the Hebrew Old Testament twice, and his multiple editions of the Greek New Testament were highly influential and beneficial to the Reformation’s theological work.
It was Estienne who created the best and final system of verse division and numbering that our Bibles exhibit today. The famous Editio Regia of 1550 is a masterpiece of scholarship, artistry, and technical skill — the first Greek New Testament to include a critical apparatus to show variant readings, variants that Estienne found in the fifteen manuscripts he consulted. It is this edition, with its splendid Greek letters cut by Claude Garamond, that became the basis for the English-language Geneva Bible, as well as the study of Scripture for centuries to come.
By 1550, Estienne had printed many editions of the Latin Vulgate Bible in Paris, yet his scholarship had led him “in two directions” from that ecclesially authorized text: backwards, “behind the translation to the original texts,” and forward, to more full and careful explanations in his texts for the “ordinary educated reader,” which “could hardly avoid encroaching upon the domain of exegesis” (Robert Estienne, Royal Printer, 76–78).
In the 1545 edition, he included both a set of unauthorized marginal notes that discussed the legitimacy of the Vulgate’s rendering of the original texts, and his own rendering of Greek and Hebrew texts into a new Latin version parallel to the Vulgate. This book ultimately led to suspicion of heresy, of “Lutheran views,” and to Estienne’s fleeing of Paris for the haven of Geneva in 1550.
In Geneva, now openly supporting the Protestant movement, Estienne set up his press and became the printer par excellence of the Reformation cause. His 1553 French Bible continued the Reformation emphasis on lay reading of Scripture in vernacular languages, and his editions of Calvin’s Institutes and Commentaries, with other Protestant writings, all served the growing movement in its desire to hear clearly and be governed by the Scriptures.
The 1559 edition of the Institutes was “the most comprehensive summary of Protestant doctrine during the Reformation” (John Calvin’s “Institutes”, 219), and arguably the most important volume to arise in the Reformation, as evidenced by its translation into six (perhaps seven) other languages by 1624. Estienne’s edition, effortless to read and beautiful even by today’s standards, played a large role in the growth of Reformation churches during the sixteenth century.