Corey Dzenko, an assistant art history professor at Monmouth University, and Campbell Lee, a junior English student, have been invited to study a rare ‘Vinegar Bible’ on display at the Christ Episcopal Church in Shewsbury.
“The Vinegar Bible is a bible that was printed in 1717, in England,” said Dzenko, an art historian who typically focuses on more contemporary artworks. “It is called the ‘Vinegar Bible’ because ‘Parable of the Vineyard’ was misspelled to say ‘Parable of the Vinegar’ instead.”
According to the Asbury Park Press, the bible has been on display in the church for about 175 years; over the summer, for the 300-year-anniversary of the book, it was removed from its glass case to be used in services.
“I was fearful when we took it out,” said Christ Church historian Bob Kelly in an interview with the Asbury Park Press. “I didn’t know what kind of condition it was in – what we were going to see.”
According to his interview, the book was worn but in good condition.
“The Vinegar Bible is significant for art because it contains many engraved illustrations by 18th century artists,” explained Dzenko. “As a book, it is also significant as an example of graphic design. The printer used mechanical process to create the book, rather than writing and illustrating all books by hand, as was done before the invention of the printing press in the 1450s.”
Dzenko said that the Bible is useful for both the artistic history and illustrations, as well as what information it can provide about bookmaking, the history of books as a whole, and the history of that specific copy of the Bible.
“The physical object was brought from England and given to the Christ Episcopal Church in the 18th century,” Dzenko explained.
“It was likely hidden with other British objects during the Revolutionary War to protect them from destruction, which tells us something about what was going on in the region during that historical time period,” she added
The University became involved with studying the bible when Kelly contacted the Art and Design Department to see if any students would research the history of the book and the artists involved in creating it.
Lee, who also has an art history minor, was the student chosen to study the book.
“Dzenko brought it up to my art history, as the idea of a potential art internship with a church that’s already close to my house,” Lee explained. “I talked to her about it after class. It already sounded cool, and once we delved into it, it got even cooler.”
Lee analyzes and catalogues the more than 100 illustrations in the book, organizing them through an art history perspective, using digital images of the book to organize them. The photos are measured and given a general description, with the end goal of creating a biblical analysis from the information.
“I really wanted to do it because it was an opportunity for an art history student, which isn’t super common or as easy to find as a science research opportunity,” Lee said.
“It’s a lot of figuring it out as I go,” Lee added. “There’s two full-page, intricate illustrated pages that I’m going to really delve into.”
According to Dzenko, the Vinegar Bible in Shrewsbury is one of only 17 in the United States, out of 40 in the entire world.
This is the only copy of the Vinegar Bible to exist in New Jersey.
“Often, historical books are dismantled so you might view a page but not the entire book,” Dzenko explained. “Because the church read from this particular bible for service, it was kept whole.”
“What makes the Vinegar Bible so interesting is that it shows how mistakes are a part of all aspects of life, and that the Bible is no different,” said George Germek, an associate librarian at the University and the head of the school’s Special Collections and Research Services. He also teaches a first-year seminar course called “The Story of the Book”, which focuses on rare books and the history they contain.
“What makes these Bibles so rare is the mistakes that they often contain!” Germek added. “The Vinegar Bible, much like the Wicked Bible, slipped unnoticed past the printers. By the time such errors were discovered, many copies were printed and sold. And that’s what makes them so special.”
The church also held a celebration for the bible’s anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 29.
The formal celebration included period music and a talk on the backstory of the book.
At 19 inches long with 783,000 words on its pages, the Vinegar Bible is believed to be worth over ten thousand dollars, according to the Asbury Park Press.
IMAGE TAKEN FROM The Asbury Park Press