CALVIN, Jean Harmonia ex tribus Evangelistis

[Geneva], Robert Estienne, 1555


FIRST LATIN EDITION. Folio. 2 parts in 1, pp. (xvi) 446 (ii) 237 (vii). Roman letter, some Italic. Printer’s woodcut device to t-p, decorated initials. Later blank inserted between parts, light water stain to upper outer corner of second part and foot of last leaf, ink splash to Bb3-5, pp. 119-23 misnumbered 151-54, extensive C16 marginal annotations in places. A very good copy in C16 Geneva calf binding, modern reback, double and triple blind ruled, gilt fleurons to corners of inner border, blind-stamped oval centrepiece with interlacing ribbons and tendrils, boards deliberately knife scratched (Revolution?), repaired corners, C17 stamp ‘RECOLS D BX’ to upper board. Modern bookplate to front pastedown, C16 dry-point inscription ‘Se present libre apartient a mos S Meliande’ to ffep, C17 inscription ‘Ex libris conventus Bruagii [Brouage, crossed out] Burdingale [Bordeaux]’ to t-p, annotations in French and Latin, with occasional Greek.

A very good copy, in contemporary Geneva binding, of the first Latin edition of Jean Calvin’s commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, also including a commentary on St John. Calvin (1509-1564) famously contributed to the introduction of the Reformation to France and Switzerland. A meeting with the Parisian Robert Estienne, Royal Printer and late convert to Protestantism, encouraged the latter’s controversial move to Geneva. Until 1559, Estienne used not the place name but ‘Oliva’ (the Olive-Tree, his printer’s sign) on the t-p of his Genevan editions. Calvin was quick to offer Estienne his Latin scholarly works. ‘The second-rate printers at his disposal [in Geneva] had on occasion caused him serious embarrassment, and he applied formally to the Council […] praying that privileges in his works should not be granted except to the printer of his choice, “to uphold his reputation”’ (Armstrong, ‘Robert Estienne’, 229). ‘Harmonia’ sought to harmonise the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), who, unlike John, recount many of the same episodes of the life of Christ, in similar order and sometimes wording. The three gospels are compared in columns, and the lines numbered. The work was ‘designed for ease in comparing and contrasting the three Evangelists’, as Calvin wished ‘to allow readers to “see at a glance the points of likeness and difference”. […] The Synoptics indicate what happened, but John tells why’ (Flaming, ‘John Calvin’, 150, 152). Calvin’s references to John led Estienne to add, as he explains at the end of Part I, the previously published commentary to St John. ‘Harmonia’ thus provided an ‘integral exposition of the history of the Gospels’. The C16 Catholic annotator focused on important Calvinist differences. He added comments to the account of the annunciation, and quotations describing the Virgin’s nature and attributes (those controversial for Protestants, e.g., ‘gratia plena’) from authorities like Augustine, Ambrose, Cyprian, St Paul, Council of Basel and the Council of Trent. He annotated the section on Christ’s temptation by Satan, which Calvinists used to discuss whether it was, really, a temptation, if Christ was never meant to give in, his human nature, and the value of free will. Quoting from authorities, he highlighted Christ’s temptation to break his fasting (could he die of starvation?), labelling Calvin’s statement ‘stultitia’ and referencing authorities who confuted this, from the Council of Nicaea to the Church Fathers. In the sections on the Sermon of the Mount, he highlighted the issue of Christ as legislator and judge, and his ‘new commandment’ to ‘love one another as I have loved you’, refuting Calvin’s ‘false’ beliefs. He also quotes from Luther’s sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent. The annotator also labelled as ‘falsum’ Calvin’s understanding of absolution as a renewal of one’s baptism rather than part of the Sacrament of Penance. He glossed passages where Calvin questions the distinction between mortal and venial sins, clarifying according to Catholic doctrine. Finally, he focused on Calvin’s theory of predestination, using authorities to restate the Catholic view on salvation. In the C17, this copy was in the library of the monastery of the Recollects in Brouage, established in 1555 by Jacques de Pons, and one of a handful of new (later Royal) towns founded in C16 France. The Recollects were born of a Spanish reform movement within the Order of the Friars Minor in the late C16. The Brouage-born navigator Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), founder of Quebec, ‘hired’ some of the local Recollects in 1615, making them the first order to establish a mission there.

Renouard, Estiennes, 86; Adams C-347. E. Armstrong, Robert Estienne (Cambridge, 1954); D.K. Fleming, ‘Calvin as Commentator on the Synoptic Gospels’, in Calvin and the Bible (Cambridge, 2006), 131-63.

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