Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Design History: Robert Estienne (Roberti Stephani)

Photographs and article, copyright © 2009 David M. Versluis.

The photograph above is the title page and printer's mark from the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and was published and printed by Robert Estienne. This copy is in the collection of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College. This copy happened to be found in a Goodwill second-hand store before it was donated to the Center. The 500th year commemoration of John Calvin’s birth is this summer (July) so it seems fitting to post something about Calvin’s primary graphic designer and printer, Robert Estienne.

Obviously, the tradition of printing and graphic design was very important in the history of the Protestant Reformation. For instance, the so-called three forms of unity of Reformed churches: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort (Dordt), and the Belgic confession were all printed, published, and distributed (sometimes clandestinely).

The principal author of the Belgic Confession, written in French in 1561, was Guido de Brès, a Reformed church preacher in the southern Low Countries (Belgic) who was put to death for heresy in 1566. The Confession’s form and content indicate de Brès was familiar with the Confession of the Huguenot (French Protestant) Reformed churches, published in the late 1550s, which was written mainly by John Calvin. Interestingly, de Brès, in the second article of the Belgic Confession, uses metaphors for God’s revelation in creation: is before our eyes like a beautiful book and all creatures, great and small, are as letters. Apparently de Brès and Calvin were well aware of French graphic design and printed materials being produced at the time of the sixteenth-century. The era is regarded as the golden age of French Renaissance printing technology. French typography (Claude Garamond—perfecting Roman letterforms), graphic design (Geoffroy Tory—geometric constructions of letters) and book design (Oronce Finé and Simon de Colines—visual information) were considered to be the finest on the European continent. Many French graphic designers of this period were multi-talented people: Geoffroy Tory was a philosophy lecturer and poet and Oronce Finé was a mathematics professor, artist, and author. In addition to typography, French graphic design of this period is noted for the elegant and colorful illustrations, for Books of Hours, depicting animals, birds, insects, aquatic life, flora, and fauna that adorn the capital initials and border margins of the page. These illustrations, some of which are stylized, express a Renaissance humanist interest in the natural world, yet this interest also correlates with biblical scholars rediscovering, reexamining, recovering the meaning of scripture and appreciating the abundance of God’s good creation.

However, by the middle decades of the sixteenth-century, as a result of religious conflicts, the European printing center moved from France (Paris, Lyons) to the Netherlands (Amsterdam), England, and Switzerland. One of the best French scholar printers and principal graphic designers of the period, Robert Estienne (1503–1559) was renowned as a great printer, author, and classical scholar for the intellectual insight of his editorial process. He was also acclaimed for typographic refinement and clarity of his original language Bibles, Christian texts, and printed biographies by history writer, Paolo Giovio. Estienne was affected by the threat of persecution and turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and was harassed and abused for being suspected a heretic by the Sorbonne (University of Paris) theology faculty for his Protestant views. Heretic, in this case meant that Estienne, with his linguistic expertise in Greek and Hebrew was revising the Bible that he was printing because he was discovering translation errors in the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) by comparing it to the original written language. As a result, by the early 1550s, Estienne relocated his printing firm to Geneva, Switzerland to be with John Calvin. There he reissued Calvin’s Institutes in 1553 and again in 1559. The introduction to Calvin’s Institutes, published by Westminster Press in 1960 says this about Estienne:
One of the greatest of Renaissance printers came to Geneva from Paris in 1550 and resumed there, in close association with the Geneva ministers, his lifework in the production of Bibles and religious texts that he had found it impossible to continue in France. This was Robert Estienne (Robertus Stephanus), a distinguished member of the great Estienne family of scholar printers to whom the New Learning and the Reformation owed a measureless debt. In February 1553, he brought out the finest edition of the Institutio that Calvin had yet seen, a folio volume 13-1/2 by 8-3/4 inches, almost faultlessly printed in handsome type. It contains 441 pages.
The woodcut illustrated above, in close-up, was the printer’s mark (colophon) of Robert Estienne’s printing firm and usually appeared on the title page of his larger books. As is the case with many printers’ marks during the Renaissance the marks could be esoteric and yet convey great meaning that needed an explanation. Estienne’s mark has a double meaning. On the one hand it represents the metaphor of the ‘Olive Tree and Branches’ as told by the apostle Paul in Romans 11:20. The Latin phrase in the balloon banner, ‘Noli Altum Sapere,’ translates as ‘Do Not Become Proud.’ With this motto, Estienne is suggesting that we, as Christians, cultivate a spirit of humility in the face of excessive dogmatism. For Protestant Reformers, Saint Paul was regarded as the true Christian Church authority (other than Christ Jesus himself), rather than the Roman Catholic clergy. In addition, according to Estienne expert Elizabeth Armstrong as cited by Fred Schreiber in his book, 'The Estiennes' (1982, p. 249), the surname Estienne, is French for the Greek noun stepanos (Stephen in English)—which was the name of the olive branch crown wreath and the prize given to ancient Greek athletes for outstanding performance and excellence. So the mark, being a play on the word Estienne (stephanos), may be referring to the high standards for Robert Estienne’s scholarly work, printing craft, graphic design, and aesthetic quality.

However, we don’t know for sure who the figure in the mark is. He's probably Saint Paul—or could he possibly be a Greek or Roman humanist philosopher? I believe it's very plausible that the figure could be that of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death for speaking the scriptural truths about Christ Jesus. In addition to reinforcing the name Estienne (Stephani), in the illustration, you will notice stones near the feet of the figure, which is traditionally associated with images of the Saint Stephen. However, in this case, the symbols are much more subtle and natural in contrast to typical Roman Catholic iconography.


  1. found at a Goodwill? gads. that book is worth around 500-1200 dollars depending on condition
    and other factors. I have a 1541 edition of Terrence by the same publisher (one of many, the 1st ed was 1529) which sold for around $500 in 2008) As to the figure in that printer's mark. the Tree and figure was a common 16th and 17th cent printer mark. Compare the mark used by Daniel Elzevir for example.

  2. I have a 1566 copy printed by Francois Perrin (in French). Would it be useful at Calvin College or Seminary?

    1. Marc,
      Possibly—you'll need to contact Dr. Karin Maag, Director of the Meeter Center at Calvin College. Here’s the website to find contact information: http://www.calvin.edu/meeter/


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