Gutenberg Gates: By Artist Larry Kirkland
The entrance to the Museum of the Bible conveys the mission of the institution artfully and contributes to guests’ understanding of the most important book in Western history. Artist Larry Kirkland, known for his large-scale public art, was commissioned to create the entrance gates that greet each guest. At nearly 40 feet high, the massive gates, comprised of 118 highly crafted brass panels, are the largest of their kind in the world.
The finalized design contains the first 80 lines of Genesis written in Latin, as originally printed in the Gutenberg Bible, but in reverse to encourage guests to create their own souvenir rubbings. The highly tactile nature of the work serves as a tangible and dramatic introduction to what awaits guests inside.
The inspiration for the brass entry gates is the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. This invention is considered one of the most consequential in history. It gave rise to the mass production of written materials, increased accessibility to reading materials among the lower and middle classes, and changed education, politics and religion.
Through the creation of moveable metal type, the Gutenberg Bible began the age of the printed book and the proliferation of knowledge in the West. Gutenberg’s process was the peak of technology in 1450 and holds many parallels to the processes through which the Museum of the Bible gates were created—from conceptual to manual to machine work and back again.
Development and Fabrication Process
Kirkland selected A. Zahner Company, located in Kansas City, Missouri, for the company’s reputable attention to detail in creating highly bespoke metal work in art and architecture. Engineers from Zahner closely collaborated with Kirkland to ensure the artist’s intent remained intact throughout the design and fabrication process. Involving analytical, machine and master hand work, 118 panels were created in a detailed, time-consuming process spanning two and a half years from concept to completion.
Upon solidifying a design direction, engineers translated 2-D drawings into 3-D geometry, approximating the design elements of Gutenberg’s original cast letters. The typeface is a traditional blackletter style. The 3-D geometry was used to generate tool paths directly to a CNC Vertical Bridge Mill machine. The machine carved each line of text from solid 1-inch brass panels, often taking 8 hours or more per piece to complete. The brass alloy of copper and zinc was specially formulated in Germany, and all waste material from the plates’ creation was recycled.
In keeping with the original Gutenberg inspiration, vertical lines were etched into the text panels’ background, referencing the lines produced from individual type blocks used in Gutenberg’s printing technique. Viewers may notice some combined letters, which are called monograms. Monograms joined often-used letter pairs, which sped up the typesetting process, economized space and reduced cost. Instead of the traditional Western 26-letter alphabet, Gutenberg’s Bible contains over 250 letters, letter combinations and punctuation marks.
The 10 marginalia plates were similarly produced, but instead of text, they showcase illustrations. Marginalia is a term used for decorative artwork placed in the margins of a book. Upon purchase of a Gutenberg Bible, the new owner would hire an illustrator to illuminate the blank border spaces and/or create highly decorative capital letters. These illuminations often referred to subjects within the text or might be something specifically requested by the owner. The museum’s gate marginalia was inspired by William Morris, the famed Arts and Crafts design master, and was illustrated by Rob Wood of Wood Ronsaville Harlin.
Once the bridge mill carving was complete, a needle hammer background was carefully hand-produced to mimic the texture of a sand mold, the technique by which Gutenberg cast his original moveable letters. The final step of panel completion involved application of a custom-formulated patina, lacquered to mitigate environmental changes over time.
The panels are the largest of their kind in the world. The amount of master craftsmanship and handwork applied throughout the process achieves a special artisan touch no machine alone could ever produce. As viewers pass by, surface tones and colors change in a dynamic process, just as Gutenberg’s illuminated Bibles do to this day.
Facts of Note
- The panels are the largest of their kind in the world.
- Timeline: 2.5 years from concept to completion
- Material: 1-inch thick brass, zinc and copper alloy specially formulated in Germany
- Gate Height: 37 feet, 6.25 inches
- Gate Width: 43 feet in the entirety
- Weight: 7 tons and 9 tons respectively, not including the steel substructure supports
- Quantity of Typeset Plates: 80
- Quantity of Marginalia Plates: 10
- Quantity of Border Plates: 28
- Primary Machine Used for Fabrication of Plates: CNC Vertical Bridge Mill
- Total Bridge Mill Hours: More than 800
- Finish of Plates: Custom patina with protective acrylic resin coating
- Fabrication Location: Kansas City, Missouri