Artist Larry Kirkland, known for his large-scale public art, was commissioned to create the entrance portals that greet each visitor to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Kirkland selected Zahner to help bring his artistic vision to reality. 

At nearly 40 feet high, the massive portals 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 milled in reverse, to mimic the orientation of printing plates.


Museum of the Bible

The amount of master craftsmanship and hand work applied throughout the process achieves a special artisan touch that no machine alone could ever produce. As viewers pass by, surface tones and colors will change in a dynamic process, just as Gutenberg’s illuminated Bibles do to this day.

Detail: Single line of milled text on bronze plate.
Detail: Single line of milled text on bronze plate.

Development & Fabrication Process

Zahner engineers collaborated closely with Kirkland to ensure the artist’s intent remained intact throughout the design and fabrication process. Involving analytical, machine and master hand work, the bronze panels were created in a detailed, time consuming process, spanning two and a half years from concept to completion.   

Process mock-up from raw bronze material (left) to final patinated surface (right).
Process mock-up from raw bronze material (left) to final patinated surface (right).

Zahner engineers translated Kirkland's 2D drawings into 3D geometry, approximating the design elements of Gutenberg’s original cast letters. The typeface is a traditional Blackletter style. The 3D geometry was used to generate tool paths directly to a CNC Vertical Bridge Mill machine. The machine carved each line of text from solid one-inch brass panels (the marginalia and border plates from ½ inch solid brass), often taking eight 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.

Finalized portal sections prior to site shipping.
Finalized portal sections prior to site shipping.

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, called monograms. Monograms join often used letter pairs, serving the tri-purpose of speeding up the typesetting process, economizing space and reducing cost. Instead of the traditional Western 26 letter alphabet, Gutenberg’s Bible contains over 250 letters, letter combinations, and punctuation marks. By creating often used combinations and duplications from the beginning, the printing process became much more fluid and fast. Close to 200 different letter forms, including variations on a single letter, punctuation, and combined letters can be seen on the portals.

Detail of raised lettering and final patina application.
Detail of raised lettering and final patina application.

The ten marginalia plates were similarly produced but instead of text, 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 portal marginalia was inspired by William Morris, the famed Arts and Crafts design master, and was illustrated by Rob Wood of Wood Ronsaville Harlin.

Bronze panels prior to patina application.
Bronze panels prior to patina application.

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.

A Zahner craftsman applies a needle finish to a panel background.
A Zahner craftsman applies a needle finish to a panel background.

Additional project scope included the addition of an aluminum ImageWall system, a Zahner patented process to create perforated imagery in metal, installed in the entry vestibule. The perforated design mimics that of the portal marginalia, ensuring aesthetic consistency from exterior to interior.

Installation of an ImageWall custom perforated panel system, a Zahner patented process.
Installation of an ImageWall custom perforated panel system, a Zahner patented process.

Facts of Note

  • The panels are the largest of their kind in the world.
  • Material: 1-inch thick brass; zinc and copper alloy specifically formulated in Germany.
  • Height: 37 feet, 6 1/4 inches
  • Width: 43 feet in their entirety
  • Weight: 7 tons and 9 tons, respectively, not including the steel sub-structure that supports the plates.
  • Finish on Plates: Custom patina with protective acrylic resin coating