The Medieval Review 10.05.20

Frühmorgen-Voss, Hella, Norbert H. Ott, Ulrike Bodemann. Katalog der deutschsprachigen illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters: 59. Historienbiblen. Kommission für deutsche Literatur des Mittelaters der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften v. 7, 1/2. Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 2008. Pp. 192, 15. . 78.00 EUR ISBN 978-3-7696-0976-9.

Reviewed by:

Stephen Mossman
University of Manchester

Historienbibeln are late medieval German prose retellings of biblical narrative, augmented using apocryphal works and secular narratives, and defined as a genre by their exclusion of non-narrative material (glosses, commentaries, moralizing excurses, prayers and so on). This gives them an important, though problematic and not commonly acknowledged place in the history of medieval bible translation. In this respect, the illuminated German Historienbibeln are of especial import, as the overwhelming majority of the extant manuscripts can be traced to lay ownership: unlike their Dutch counterparts, there is little attestable medieval interest in these German manuscripts on the part of religious institutions, reformed or otherwise. Nearly all of the manuscripts listed in this catalogue are from central and southern Germany; the Historienbibeln from the Low German Sprachraum are marked by the almost complete absence of illumination. The organization of the catalogue sensibly follows the categorization of the Historienbibeln established by Hans Vollmer in 1912, according to the main base text used for the production of each manuscript. The Historienbibeln themselves are remarkably inhomogeneous as texts, even within quite narrowly defined sub-categories, and the same is true of the illuminations: the exception in both cases being a large group of Alsatian manuscripts associated, directly and indirectly, with the workshop of Diebold Lauber in Haguenau.

The cycles of illuminations in these manuscripts, commensurate with the nature of the texts, are in many cases extremely extensive. The very first manuscript in the catalogue (59.1.1: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin--Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms. germ. fol. 565, a large manuscript of some 559 leaves, likely from Nuremberg) is also the most heavily illustrated, with no less than 851 half- or full-page illuminations. This is exceptional, but not entirely without parallel: 24 manuscripts each preserve at least 100 illuminations, and a couple over 500. In the face of such plenitude, Ulrike Bodemann's descriptions are distinguished by their precise and authoritative concision, a positive attribute not common to much modern German scholarship. Nor do they merely summarize existing knowledge, but are clearly based on thorough study and deep knowledge of the manuscripts themselves, commenting carefully on the relationship between the images and the texts they illuminate. Bodemann's catalogue makes a substantial independent contribution to the scholarship on the Historienbibel, consistently evaluating, and not simply uncritically adopting, observations made in the principal recent work in the field by Ute von Bloh, Andrea Rapp and Lieselotte Saurma-Jeltsch.

All of the manuscripts, with the understandable exception of some of those in private hands, and those where space has been left for illuminations which were not then added, are represented by at least one reproduction, uniformly of good quality. The quality of the illuminations themselves varies widely, with some truly outstanding work: the remarkable landscapes of one of the few manuscripts from the Lower Rhine, for instance (59.12.1: Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Ms. germ. fol. 516; b/w plates 44 and 45), which show knowledge both of contemporary Flemish illumination and of the techniques of Stefan Lochner and his circle in Cologne; or the detailed and remarkably expressive figures of an unknown artist in Urach, far removed from those more famous centres of artistic innovation (59.3.1: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2823; b/w plate 10). Not all work is of this quality, and Bodemann's accurate and usefully evocative descriptions are at times refreshingly honest. This reviewer's favourite example is the note that one of the characteristic features of the illumination in a particular Diebold Lauber manuscript (59.4.11: Mainz, Stadtbibliothek, Hs II 64) is "die halbgeschlossen wirkenden Augen in den überproportional großen, teigigen, ausdrucksneutralen Gesichtern" ("the eyes appearing half-shut in disproportionately large, doughy, expressionless faces"; p. 85). The catalogue has been sensibly lightened by consigning a full set of concordances to the images depicted in all the manuscripts to a set of .pdf files, which can be downloaded without charge at [accessed 10 April 2010].

The catalogue is thorough in its pursuit of comprehensive coverage. It therefore includes manuscripts for which illumination was intended, but never carried out (as noted above); manuscripts in libraries well outside the German Sprachraum, including a number in British and American collections; manuscripts in private hands, the location of some of which is at present unknown; and early printed books with integral woodcuts. We may note at this point that manuscript 59.4.18 (formerly Schweinfurt, Bibliothek Otto Schäfer, Ms. OS 50 (Nr. 371), and at the time of publication last attested in the Antiquariat Dr. Jrn Günther, then in Hamburg), has re-appeared, having been acquired by donation in 2008 to a Swiss public collection (Basel, Kunstmuseum/ Kupferstichkabinett, Inv.-Nr. 2008.24); my information from [accessed 10 April 2010]. Two further illustrations, depicting the circumcision of Abraham and Isaac, and the battle of the four and five kings, and which belong to the same codex discissus from which 285 other illustrations have been identified in six separate collections (59.7.1: principally Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, min. 4095-4169 [75 fragments], and Vienna, Albertina, Graphische Sammlung, Inv.Nr. 31036 [200 fragments]), were sold for GBP 12,500 by Sotheby's in London on 3 December 2008 (sale L08241, lot 15). A mid-fifteenth-century Austrian manuscript sold for GBP 48,000 by Sotheby's in London on 6 December 2005 (sale L05241, lot 35) as an illuminated Historienbibel augmented by the so-called Endchrist-Bildertext, however, is more likely to be a hitherto unattested copy of the Konstanzer Weltchronik, in a similar combination to that found in New York, Public Library, Spencer Collection Ms. 100.