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Patron Saints of Bookbinding

Bookbinding is not for the timid of hand or heart.

courtesy of Dan Goldberg

Risk of stab by needle, loss of fingers by guillotine: these are the few perils that bookbinders face every day in their field of work. There is even one recorded case of death by beating books.

courtesy of Syracuse University Libraries

Books and binding materials must face the elements: aging with time, rough handling, water damage, mold, fire, light, gravity – not to mention censorship!

Unfortunately, unfortunate things happen. Imagine if the countless rare books somehow had not been destroyed in the Arno Flood of 1966. Where the world would be.

After the flood. courtesy of David Lees

When it comes to bookbinding, there are reasons to pray. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Lucky for us, there is at least a handful of patron saints of bookbinders, and countless more working their magic in an unofficial capacity.

Celestine V. courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Take, for example, Celestine V, who, before being elected Pope in 1294, lived a hermetic life praying, working and reading the Bible, and after thoroughly mucking up things at the Vatican, happily returned to the hermit’s life in a small palace room until his quiet death.

St. Chris. engraving by Albrecht Durer

Or St. Christopher, martyr, patron saint of epilepsy, gardeners, mariners, pestilence, thunder-storms, travelers and yes, bookbinding. Baptized by a hermit, Christopher was born Offerus, son of a heathen king who first bound his loyalty to Satan before deeming him too cowardly. Ultimately beheaded for helping magick a palm tree into being.

St. John. engraving by Albrecht Durer

There’s John of God, John the Apostle, Luke the Evangelist, Sebastian, Bartholomew.

St. Bart. engraving by Albrecht Durer

“My father used to tell me that before we are born, St. Bartholomew, patron saint of bookbinders, presents our soul with a choice of two books,” Dora Damage writes. “One is bound in the softest golden calf and majestically gold-tooled; the other is bound in plain, undyed goatskin straight from the tan-pits.” The “nascent soul” who chooses the opulent volume, she continues, “will open it to find that the pages of the book are already inscribed with a story of an inescapable fate.” The latter’s pages “start off blank, and await inscription by the leading of a life of free will according to personal inspiration and divine grace.” – The Journal of Dora Damage: A Novel by Belinda Starling

St. Columba

I could fabricate some connection these saints have with bookbinding, but as far as I can tell the saint with the most relevant story is Columba of Iona. Not only did he write original poems and hymns, but he was a dedicated scribe, transcribing more than 300 valuable manuscripts in his lifetime.

St. Columba, scribe
St. Columba, scribe

There are different accounts of his story. One version says that his journey from monk to saint was catalyzed by a dispute over a copy of the Vulgate that Columba had transcribed in the year 540, and that his master tried to claim for himself. Columba fought and lost the case according the King of Ireland’s decree, “To every cow her calf, and to every book its son-book.” In this way Columba made an important contribution to copyright law.

The book of Psalms copied by Columba can be found in the Royal Irish Academy.

Another version tells the story of a family feud gone wrong that ended in 3,000 dead and Columba’s exile from Ireland. Yet another states that the these two stories are interrelated. If you want to get the straight story you might look into the Vita Columbae, a hagiography describing Columba’s life, miracles, prophecies, and one of the most informative surviving manuscripts depicting early medieval Scotland.

Columba is also invoked to prevent floods. “Now the museum was flooded several times last year and we hadn’t invoked Columbia,” explains our very own Tim James, “so it serves us right.”

Finally, there’s the plethora of unofficial but appreciated living and historic bookbinders that some turn their thoughts to for support and advice. I know for me, the voice of Gary Young, who first exposed me to printing and binding, constantly pops in my head, telling me to add leading here or impression there, and then of course there’s always the what-would-Julie-Chen-do interior monologue.


I propose these queries for reflection: Who are your patron saints? And how have they shaped your making practice? Life practice?


Ava Sayaka Rosen, Volunteer, American Bookbinders Musem