2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Sabbath Silver
Holy Books from the Collection of Bernard van Noordwijk
In an era when leather bindings on books are considered a luxury, it is easy to forget that for most of the book’s 2,000-year history, almost all volumes were bound in calf skin or sheepskin. For centuries, book owners desiring something more lavish than utilitarian leather commissioned elaborate designs to be worked into the cover, or decorations of jewels or ivory. The most ornate treatments were reserved for Bibles and other holy books owned by the church or nobles. In the seventeenth century, ornate silver decorations became affordable to and popular among the burgeoning middle class of successful merchants and lesser nobles. These bindings indicated the importance of the books, the wealth of their owners, or both at the same time. For nearly two centuries, books adorned with silver were popular in Western Europe.
Bernard van Noordwijk, a retired Dutch management consultant, has assembled an extensive collection of books with silver adornments. He is interested in small volumes of religious texts such as prayer books, missals, and hymnbooks, the sort of book that someone, usually a woman, would have carried to church. The books themselves—standard religious texts in most cases—are often not particularly valuable. European printers manufactured them in vast quantities, and they can be found in any good antiquarian shop. The silverwork on the bindings, however, makes them special as objects and as a record of European church fashions from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. They were bound and adorned centuries after books no longer needed to be chained to shelves for safekeeping, yet some of them incorporate chains into their design. The silver chains may have even allowed their owners to carry them like handbags. The books were anachronisms and impractical in one key respect: The metalwork prevented them from being stored with other books. Pulling them on and off the shelf would scratch and tear the covers of the adjacent volumes. Van Noordwijk believes the books were typically displayed on a mantelpiece when not in use.
While books adorned with silver were probably fairly common at one time, most of them have been disassembled because the silver is worth more than the book. In fact, that’s how van Noordwijk started collecting these books. Thirty-five years ago, he noticed that one of his wife’s silver bracelets appeared to be fashioned from a book clasp. Early binders mounted brass clasps or affixed leather ties to the edges of books to hold them closed when they weren’t in use. Before bookcases came into widespread use, books were often stored flat on a shelf or locked in a trunk. With time and use, the pages tended to warp slightly, preventing the covers from closing tightly. Eventually, this would damage the book and make it susceptible to dust and insect pests. The solution was to clamp or tie the book closed when it wasn’t in use. Before he realized that his wife’s bracelet had once been part of a book, van Noordwijk had never paid much attention to books with clasps fashioned from silver.
As often happens with collectors, once he knew what he was looking for, van Noordwijk soon spotted other books with ornamental silverwork still attached. The first example he found seemed too expensive, and he didn’t buy it. He continued to think about it, however, and eventually returned prepared to pay the asking price. The book was gone, sold to have its clasps made into knife rests, according to the shopkeeper. Thus began three decades of collecting to save silver-adorned bindings from being converted into jewelry or dining room accessories. The books, valued mostly for their silver content, typically cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Van Noordwijk’s efforts to preserve these endangered books will culminate in a February through June exhibition of his books at the Bijbels Museum (Bible Museum) in Amsterdam, where he is a guest curator. The examples that follow will be depicted, with many other books from his collection, in the illustrated exhibition catalog, which will provide the most extensive documentation of silver-adorned bindings to date.

The small size of this psalm book is typical of Scandinavian Lutheran texts. The colored bookbinding, however, is quite unusual. The binding probably dates from the rule of King Frederic V of Denmark, between 1746 and 1766. The tooling depicts two cherubs crowning Frederic at the top, with rampant lions and the king’s monogram below. The small silver clasps are delicate and finely wrought. Typical of the era, the silversmith did not use a hallmark, and the artist’s identity is not known.
A silversmith, undoubtedly a specialist in ornamental silver, skillfully made this silbereinband, or solid silver binding, in the late seventeenth century. The artist, possibly from Bavaria, executed the design in relief. Christ, holding a cross, is represented on the spine, with a snake and a skull at his feet, symbolizing his triumph over Satan and death. Christ’s blood, gathered in a cup, refers to the Sacrament of Communion. On the front of the binding is a beautiful interpretation of the Last Supper, similar to the style of Italian sculptures of the sixteenth century. The heads of small winged guardian angels peek from the corners. The two silver clasps are adorned with floral motifs. The book enclosed in this silver binding is a late-sixteenth-century edition of an explanation of the ecclesiastical liturgy.

This volume combines three early-seventeenth-century Hebrew texts and a collection of Yiddish prayers for women. The blank pages at the front and back of the volume have handwritten notes about the Heijmans, a family of Dutch Jews, beginning with Izaak, a butcher born in 1787. The first notations are written in an uncertain hand, and some of the Hebrew characters are written backward. The final notations, in a nice Hebrew, Yiddish, and Dutch script, were made in 1864.
The apparent lack of Hebrew training of the earliest owner suggests that the family’s circumstances improved over time. The pedestrian leather binding was repaired at some point, and the silver ornamentation was added later. The rich silverwork has been assembled from parts brought together from several sources, including other books, and the silver mounts on the edges of the book and the clasps incorporate the city emblem of Amsterdam. The hallmark suggests that an Amsterdam silversmith crafted them in the early eighteenth century. The chain recalls the time when books were attached to lecterns or shelves to prevent theft but dates from a much later period and probably served only as decoration.

In eighteenth-century Holland, Sunday church was the main social event of the week. The faithful carried their Bibles to the services, and Bibles became an emblem to show devotion. From the amount of silver, one could measure the wealth of the bearer. This Bible, illustrated inside with magnificent engravings, is a great example of the artisanship of Friesland, a province in the northern Netherlands. It has all the details imaginable: silver clasps, ring clasps, and corner and central mounts. According to the hallmark, Pieter Martens, a Frisian silversmith (1748– 1781) crafted it in 1764. The silverwork shows the restraint expected on a member of the austere Calvinist denomination, while managing to convey elegance, refinement, and prosperity. Martens adorned the Bible for eighteen-year-old Geeske Harmens. She probably received this Bible as a gift for her confirmation. Harmens must have come from a wealthy family, considering the rich mounts and the silver plaque with the family crest on the front. A similar plaque on the other side bears the recipient’s name and the date of the gift. From the inscriptions inside, we know that Harmens was born in 1746 and that she married Haring Klases in 1768. She had five children between 1769 and 1777, and died two years shy of her fiftieth birthday, in 1794.
Since the Renaissance, the color blue has been associated with faith, devotion, and truth. Combined with silver, blue also represented joy. This book, from about 1850, titled Nouvelle année eucharistique, describes how a worshiper should prepare for Mass, take Communion, and celebrate the Sacraments. Judging from its condition, van Noordwijk speculates that it has spent a century and a half “without experiencing a trip to a church.” The Gruel family of bookbinders bound the book incorporating silver fleur-des-lis designs by an unknown silversmith. The lily, a symbol of purity and innocence, appears at the corners and on the clasps and enhances the religious symbolism of the binding materials.
In his retirement, Bernard van Noordwijk devotes himself to building and researching his collection of book bindings adorned with silver. His son, Krijn van Noordwijk, of Laboratorivm Designers, in Amsterdam, took the photographs. Scott Brown is the editor of this magazine.