Colours Between Covers

German book illumination of the 15th and early 16th centuries. An exhibition in the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

By Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Rationale from Pommersfelden Rationale from PommersfeldenStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Painting on parchment

In the 15th century, painters did not only decorate handwritten and printed books, but also single sheets of parchment.

This leaf imitates a textile sign of honour which formed
part of the ritual dress of popes and bishops. A similar breast plate is
mentioned in the Old Testament as belonging to the official dress of Jewish
high priests. The so-called 'Bamberg Rationale' resembles a surviving 11th-century
liturgical vestment kept in the Dioce­san Museum at Bamberg. It may have served as a "sewing pattern" and was probably created by a Bohemian painter who came to Franconia as a refugee from the wars with the Hussites.

In the centre of the sheet, the lamb from the Apocalypse is depicted below Christ as a judge. The lamb has seven horns and seven eyes and is standing on the open book with seven seals. It is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists and portraits of six apostles.

Among the saints shown at either side of the sheet is emperor Henry II, the patron saint of Bamberg...

...on the opposite side, his wife Kunigunde holds a model of Bamberg cathedral.

The drawing was created around the year 1420, but the garment that served as a model is much older.

Bamberg Rationale (11th century)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

In the early 11th century, the priestly garment was given by Henry II to Bamberg cathedral and is today shown in the Diocesan Museum. While the blue cloth is a result of a 15th-century repair, the golden centrepiece survives from the original early mediaeval garment.

Psalter with Cantica, GermanStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Mass Produced Manuscripts

As a result of monastic reforms, numerous copies of religious books like the psalter were produced in the 15th century. Nevertheless, each copy was different, as different painters illuminated the manuscripts in very individual styles. German translations of the Latin text of the bible allowed nuns and lay people to use the books.

Psalter with Cantica, German Psalter with Cantica, German (ca. 1418) by so-called Alsatian workshop of 1418?Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

King David was regarded as the author of the psalms. This pen drawing originally served as a title page of a German psalter produced in the Alsace, but later it was pasted into the front board.

Dominican PsalterStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Red and blue initials are a simple form of book decoration, and sometimes the only one. Here, the text has been written around a hole in the parchment which was sewn together before use.

Dominican PsalterStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

In this initial B, the outline of two dragons has been painted in blue, while the figures themselves have been left empty. The red flourishing in the centre and around the edges of the letter is typical for books decorated in Nuremberg.

Breviarium Cisterciense Breviarium Cisterciense (1471/1471)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Books for Pious Women

Manuscripts from nunneries reflect the intimate relation between the owners and their books: Miniatures show role models or identification figures, and German annotations help those not able to read the Latin text.

Dominican Breviary Dominican Breviary (ca. 1480/90)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Polished gold leaf forms the letters ihs, an abbreviation for the name of Jesus. A nun from Nuremberg added this painted page to her book.

Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, German Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, German (1451)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Woodcuts made it much easier to illustrate books, as they could simply be pasted in a handwritten text and coloured. The text was written by a Dominican nun of Saint Catherine in Nuremberg and used for reading aloud during meals.

This image has been printed from two separate woodblocks: one with an image of Saint Catherine, the patron saint of the Nuremberg convent, another for the floral border.

Extracts from a Breviary and Life of St Margaret Extracts from a Breviary and Life of St Margaret (shortly after 1483/5 (before 1521))Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

This initial G is inhabited by two female saints: St Margareth and St Agnes. They were the patron saints of a nunnery in Strasbourg where this small book was created. At the bottom of the page, the prioress of the convent, the Dominican nun Agnes von Mülheim, is shown.

Extracts from a Breviary and Life of St MargaretStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Saint Catherine of Siena offers her heart to the crucified Jesus. The painter of this historiated initial, Sibylla von Bondorf, was herself a nun and worked for several convents.

Extracts from a Breviary and Life of St MargaretStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Here, Saint Francis receives the stigmata: Lines lead from the hands and feet of the crucified Christ towards the praying saint. Below, Saint Margareth is kneeling in prayer.

Calendar and Collectary Calendar and Collectary (1428)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

This initial shows the Annunciation. The virgin Mary is seated in a wicker chair, reading a book placed open on a pulpit. In the top right-hand corner, the archangel Gabriel can be seen.

Influences of the Nuremberg style can be detected in the red pen flourishes as well as the dragon in the letter, whose outline is created by green and red paint.

Mary sits on the cross stroke of the initial E - next to another tiny dragon.

The painted decoration of this manuscript resembles older models from Nuremberg and may have been created by a nun from the Cistercian convent at Sonnefeld or in a workshop in the area.

Fragment of an Antiphonary Fragment of an Antiphonary (ca. 1460/1465) by Hans Pleydenwurff and workshopStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Pictures without Context

Medieval books did not always survive the centuries intact. After the invention of printing around 1450, many manuscripts were replaced with printed books. But sometimes, at least the painted decoration escaped destruction: Initials and miniatures were cut out and collected. Thus, numerous fragments of great artistic quality have been preserved.

One of the most beautiful examples of 15th-century book illumination in Franconia is this annunciation scene from a lost Antiphonary. The initial M may have been created in the workshop of the Nuremberg painter Hans Pleydenwurff.

The virgin Mary holds a book in her left hand which resembles a contemporary manuscript. Lines mark the layout of the page, and red lines indicate headings in the text.

Fragment from a Gradual Fragment from a Gradual (ca. 1420/21)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

In this initial, an oxen and a donkey observe...

... the birth of Christ. Joseph and Mary pray next to the newborn Jesus who is surrounded by golden rays of light - illuminating the world.

The historiated initial originally decorated a gradual, a book used for singing in mass on the steps leading to the altar. The style of painting points towards the region of Bohemia.

Fragment of a Gradual Fragment of a Gradual (ca. 1420/21)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

The ascension of Christ into heaven is often depicted in this simple form. Only Christ's feet are visible, his body has already left the Earth.

The scene is integrated into an initial V, as the hymn for the feast of the Ascension begins with the words Viri galilei (Men of Galilee).

Aurelius Augustinus: Epistolae, De baptismo Aurelius Augustinus: Epistolae, De baptismo (before 1449)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

The Author as a Reader

Many painted images in books show scenes with books. Scribes are shown writing with the quill, saints hold religious books, and readers are seated at a pulpit with an open book. Frequently, historiated initials at the beginning of a text depict the author leafing through his own work.

This manuscript from the region of Mainz contains the letters of Saint Augustine. In the initial, the church father is shown reading rather than writing, as he is pointing towards the book rather than holding a pen.

At the bottom of the page, two coats of arms have been painted. This was a way of showing who owned a book - and of preserving their memory. However, the names of the owners have not yet been identified.

Fragment from the ‚Calumnia‘ by Lucian, translated into Latin by Rudolf Agricola Fragment from the ‚Calumnia‘ by Lucian, translated into Latin by Rudolf Agricola (1496)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Classical Art Re-Invented

The most famous painter of Antiquity was Apelles, who lived in Greece in the 4th century B.C. However, none of his works has been preserved. Therefore, artists attempted to recreate his pictures from literary descriptions. The satirical author Lucianus of Samosata (2nd century) describes
a painting by Apelles in his treatise ʻOn
calumnyʼ. In a 15th-century manuscript of Lucianus's works, a student from Heidelberg created the first version of the picture which exists north of the Alps.

The painting shows the young king Midas with long ears, listening to the words of women lavelled as suspicion, ignorance, captation (of benevolence) and deception - four vices a ruler should avoid.

The painting is surrounded by a floral border inhabited by a pair of goldfinches - one of them seems to be whispering into the other's ear.

The leaf was formerly part of a manuscript held in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart.

Fragment of a Missal for the diocese of Regensburg Fragment of a Missal for the diocese of Regensburg (1500) by Johann Pfeyl (print)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Printed Books with Painted Pages

After printing with movable type was invented around the year 1450, painters continued to decorate books by hand. Many printing presses worked together with workshops of painters who added colourful borders and initials to the printed text. Books with painted pages were more expensive than those without and could be adapted to the personal taste of their owner.

Bible, German Bible, German (1483) by Anton Koberger (print)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

In this printed edition of the German Bible which was published in Nuremberg in 1483, a woodcut shows the creation of Eve from one of Adam's ribs. Various animals, including a unicorn, inhabit the Garden of Eden, and the Earth is surrounded by the sea filled with fish and a mermaid.

The Earth is created by the word of God which flows from his mouth. Angels surround the cosmos, and the four winds blow in the corners. The gold leaf representing the universe has been decorated with punches.

The Bible printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger was published several decades before Luther's famous translation. It is the ninth out of fourteen editions of the German Bible before Luther.

Plato: Opera, Latin Plato: Opera, Latin (1483) by Lorenzo d’Alopa (print)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Ten years after Gutenberg published his Latin Bible in Mainz, the first German printers set up workshops in Italy. When exporting their products across the Alps, they packed lose leaves into barrels to reduce weight. Bindings and painted decoration were added later.

This edition of the works of Plato came out in Florence in 1483. The painted border was added after the book had reached Augsburg. The style is typical for the workshop of Johannes Bämler, where numerous books were enhanced with borders and initials.

Fragment of a Missal for the diocese of Regensburg Fragment of a Missal for the diocese of Regensburg (1500) by Johann Pfeyl (print)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

This missal for the diocese of Regensburg was printed in Bamberg, where only a single press existed at the time. The book was then taken to Regensburg, where the famous Berthold Furtmeyr oversaw its decoration.

Fragment of a Bamberg Missal Fragment of a Bamberg Missal (1490) by Johann Sensen­schmidtStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

The printer Johann Sensenschmidt produced the first edition of a missal for the diocese of Bamberg. Several copies were purchased by the wealthy Nuremberg citizen Sebald Schreyer for the church of St Sebaldus. The donors are shown here kneeling in front of the patron saint, who holds a model on the church in his hands.

While the front of the leaf bears a painted miniature showing the saint and the two donors of the book...

Fragment of a Bamberg MissalStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

...the back shows a coloured woodcut with a crucifixion scene: Christ on the cross between his mother Mary and favourite apostle John.

A close look reveals the expressive face of the suffering Christ in the woodcut. The painter made the scene even more dramatic by adding streams of red blood and a glittering gold background.

According to the Gospels, the place where Christ was crucified is called Golgotha or place of the skull, because Adam's skull was buried here.

Andreas Lang: Chronicle of the abbots of Michelsberg and bishops of BambergStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Writing and Printing in a Bamberg Monastery

Since the early 11th century, Benedictine monks lived in the convent of Saint Michael's in Bamberg. Over the centuries, many manuscripts were produced in the monastery's scriptorium to provide books for the library. Some monks were even active as authors. One of them was abbot Andreas Lang, who ruled from 1483 to 1502. He composed two historiographical works: a chronicle of abbots and bishops as well as a catalogue of Benedictine saints. Drawings and woodcuts illustrate his texts.

Andreas Lang: Chronicle of the abbots of Michelsberg and bishops of Bamberg Andreas Lang: Chronicle of the abbots of Michelsberg and bishops of Bamberg (1494 and later)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

In the chronicle of the abbots of St Michael's in Bamberg, the portraits were drawn by hand and carefully coloured.

Andreas Lang: Catalogue of the saints of the Benedictine ­order Andreas Lang: Catalogue of the saints of the Benedictine ­order (late 15th century)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

By contrast, the catalogue of saints is illustrated with woodcuts. The text describes the lives of over one thousand saints, but only 33 different woodcuts were used for the images - an efficient way to reduce cost and labour.

Andreas Lang: Chronicle of the abbots of Michelsberg and bishops of Bamberg Andreas Lang: Chronicle of the abbots of Michelsberg and bishops of Bamberg (1494 and later)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

After Andreas Lang died in 1502, his biography was added to the catalogue of the abbots of St Michael's in Bamberg. The text praises his achievements, particularly his care for the monastic library.

Andreas Lang: Catalogue of the saints of the Benedictine ­order Andreas Lang: Catalogue of the saints of the Benedictine ­order (late 15th century)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Even though the same woodcut is used for several portraits in abbot Andreas Lang's catalogue of Benedictine saints, the pictures differ in their colouring.

Book of pericopes (Evangelistar) Book of pericopes (Evangelistar) (1503)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

For a Franconian painter, Palm Sunday had nothing to do with palm trees: Christ is greeted by the men of Jerusalem with branches of willows instead of palm leaves.

Accompanied by three apostles, Jesus is depicted riding a donkey; a spring landscape can be seen in the background. The miniature of a Bamberg painter is based on a copper engraving by the so-called ‚Meister AG‘.

On the first Sunday of Advent, the reading in mass comes from the gospel of Matthew and describes Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. A monk from St Michael's in Bamberg wrote this book of pericopes.

Breviarium Hallense (Liber ordinarius)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

The Afterlife of Book Illumination

The tradition of writing and decorating books by hand continued well into the 16th century. Eminent churchmen and other patrons of high rank commissioned books for their personal use. Colourful paintings made the books more individual and representative than the mass-produced works from the printing press.

Breviarium Hallense (Liber ordinarius) Breviarium Hallense (Liber ordinarius) (1532/1532)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

This manuscript was owned by Margrave Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545), the most important spiritual ruler in the Holy Roman Empire. His coat of arms shows his great political power and is crowned by the cardinal’s hat.

The initials GS belong to Georg Stierlein, Albrecht’s scribe, who also created the painted decoration of the manuscript.

Calendar and CollectaryStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Protected and Adorned

In the Middle Ages, bindings made from wood, leather and metal protected the precious books. Often, their outside was also decorated: stamps with floral ornaments, animals and other figures were embossed on the covers, and decorative metalwork adorned the volumes.

Dominican PsalterStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

When seen from the side, this bronze clasp resembles the head of a dragon.

Andreas Lang: Catalogue of the saints of the Benedictine ­orderStaatsbibliothek Bamberg

Metal clasps on the edges of bindings helped to protect the book from damage. They pressed the wooden boards together and thus prevented an expansion of the parchment leaves, which can be caused by humidity.

Credits: Story

Colours Between Covers. German book illumination of the 15th and 16th centuries from the collections of the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg.
An exhibition at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg,
3 April – 30 June 2017

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Texts: Bettina Wagner and Ilka Mestemacher
Photos: Gerald Raab

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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