Thursday, August 23, 2012

Illustrated incunabula

Tuesday I had the pleasure of paging through two different copies of Schonsperger's 1487 Bible, printed in German and illustrated with woodcuts by HB (maybe Hans Bamler according to the cataloging record), who copied the famous Quentell woodcuts.  These woodcuts are the ones you see in most bibles of the time period illustrating famous scenes in the five books of Moses, the books of Daniel and the Apocalypse.

So you might ask why I looked at two copies of the book. Well, first of all, The Spencer Collection at NYPL  specializes in bindings and illustrations or prints. The complete copy they own is rebound in a late 19th / early 20th century full leather binding over raised cords (that means you can feel and see the cords over the spine). I was really disappointed because I wanted to see a contemporary binding. This complete edition is hand colored as you can see by the image on the left. 

The colorist used yellow, orange, and green with gold leaf. Every woodcut is colored. The picture on the left is of creation and is usually the most elaborate. You can also see that the initial I for "In the Beginning" is also colored with gold leaf, technically it's illuminated.

 The two volume set is really quite nice and, except for the initial letters for chapters and books, is printed from type, even the running headers.


 The photograph of the illustration on the right is not colored, that's from the second copy NYPL owns of this incunabulum.

 That book is bound in original or fairly contemporary boards of wood covered with leather, blind tooled, with metal clasps that have disappeared over the centuries. You can see the cords through the board and where the signatures are loose. 

All the woodcuts are uncolored as you can see on the right. 
Here's another image from that copy.

I've learned it's really important to look at all copies of an edition because there are variations in type, layout, but mostly in rubrication, coloring of letters and the woodcuts. When the printer or publisher sold the book, they often sold it uncolored, with some colors, and elaborately colored. The Koberger German Bible (1483) at Kent State University is elaborately colored. The Schonsperger (1487) obviously came in at least two color choices, some and none. Undoubtedly, there are others out there that are elaborately colored, either when purchased or afterward.

There are six other illustrated Bibles in the Spencer incunabula collection. I'll eventually look at all of them to compare woodcuts and printing.

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