Very Early Manuscripts and Books from Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books

- by Michael Stillman

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Very Early Manuscripts and Books from Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books

Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books has created a catalogue of Collecting Culture. Manuscripts and Early Printed Books. This is a spectacular catalogue, not just for the material offered within, but for the illustrations reproduced on its pages. These are the handwork of enormously skilled artists and illustrators from five to nine centuries ago. Naturally, many are on manuscripts as they precede Gutenberg's invention, though illuminated manuscripts continued to be created after that date. Others are hand-colored copies of printed books. What is found here is rare, beautiful, and very old.

 

Most of the material in this catalogue is religious in nature, not surprising for literature from medieval times or shortly thereafter. Considering all the wars, killing and subjugation of weaker people precipitated in God's name, the image of hugging warriors on the cover is quite moving. I don't know whether it is of enemies reconciling or leaders embracing before taking off on a killing mission, but it's still a touching image. It comes from a book of hours in Latin and French produced in Bourges, France, 1500-1510. It was the work of an illuminator known as the Master of Spencer 6, containing 36 full-page miniatures and 35 small ones. It is known as the G & H Book of Hours, as the patron who commissioned it is unknown, but it has a coat of arms with the initials G and H intertwined with a love knot. That's nice too. From early biblical days we see Adam and Eve meeting with God. We can tell it is their pre-sinful days as they are unclothed. We are still paying the price for their impertinence! In the follow-up, they are expelled from the garden. A double-page spread illustrates the story of the three living and the three dead, a tale which usually features three aristocrats who meet three speaking corpses in the woods. They bring the living a warning, not to lead sinful lives as they did or they will pay a terrible price in the hereafter. One mystery to this codex is that the smaller images were painted over earlier text. It is unknown why these were added later and in such a fashion. Item 17. Price on request.

 

Item 7 is another book of hours, an illuminated manuscript on vellum from Salzburg, Austria, created around the same time that Gutenberg was starting up his press, 1450-1460. It was likely made for a male patron who is pictured within, before the Virgin and Child, and kneeling as a confessant before a friar. It too depicts the story of the three living and the three dead. It follows the older telling in which the three living are kings, but in a twist, the three dead are speaking corpses of themselves lying in their coffins. They provide the usual warning to change their ways before it is too late. Scared straight. Priced at 155,000 € (euros, or approximately $181,630 in U.S. dollars)

 

This next book picks up on the theme of the three living and the three dead. It's title is Ars Moriendi (the art of dying), and it was published 1467-1469 in the Netherlands. It displays various people on their deathbeds. Some are surrounded by loving people and angelic figures, others by devilish and hideous creatures. Who would you like to be your escort to the afterlife? Then you better shape up while you still can. The temptations that led the unfortunates to their sad fate are also displayed. This is a block book, sort of an alternative to the printing press, where illustrations and text are cut into wood blocks. It likely started slightly before Gutenberg and continued for a while thereafter as movable type printing was still very expensive in its earliest days. Only one side of a leaf was printed and in this case, one leaf was pasted on the next to create a version of a doubled-sided page. This book has been hand-colored, but only on some portions, with illustrations having colors in limited areas while the rest of the page is uncolored. It is not the best quality of coloring, more akin to a child's coloring book that was not completed. Still, it is the best you are likely to find. Block books are very rare, and this is one of only two known copies of this one. Item 8. 760,000 € (US $890,580).

 

This next item is a remarkable manuscript, one that comes from Mexico rather than Europe. From 1571, it was created in Huejotzingo, a small city in Central Mexico. As such it is called the San Salvador Huejotzingo Manuscript. It is one of only six extant manuscripts from Huetjotzingo, the other five being in institutional collections. This is a bilingual book, Spanish and Huetjotzingo pictographs. It shows that half a century after the Spanish conquest, the native pictographs were still understood. This codex records two lawsuits. The people of Huetjotzingo had joined the Spanish conquistadors in subduing the Aztec Empire, with which they had bad relations, but perhaps by this time they were rethinking their allegiances. One of these lawsuits pits the indigenous people of San Salvador against church authorities. It accuses the authorities of mistreating people, not paying artisans who worked for the church or only paying them half, taking more than their share of corn and other products produced by the people, and charging for marriages, baptisms, and burials. The Canon was found guilty of some charges and he was ordered to pay the indigenous people for their work, but he was acquitted of most charges. Item 20. 960,000 € (US $1,125,000).

 

Next is the oldest item in this catalogue. It is an English bible, in the Latin Language, dating from 1250-1260. It was likely produced in Oxford or Salisbury. It features historiated initials containing detailed color illustrations. For example, a page length “I” from Genesis displays scenes from the creation. A seated creator observes the results of his efforts through the six days of creation, ending with a day of rest. The “L” which begins the Gospel of Matthew features a sleeping Jesse, behind him the tree of his descendants, King David, the Virgin, and Christ. Item 1. 580,000 € ($679,650).