Fifteenth-century illustrated editions in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco - Part II, 1


Fifteenth-century illustrated editions in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco - Part II, 1

Part II, 1 - Devotional texts: Bible and Revelationes

There are several illustrated incunable editions of devotional texts in the library of the monastery of Santa Scolastica, now a national monument. They include one edition of the Bible, printed in Venice in 1498 by Simone Bevilacqua, the Sermones of Bernard of Clairvaux and of St Vincent Ferrer, an edition of the Meditazioni di Cristo and one of the Rivelazioni of St Bridget.

The writings of St Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373) had been in circulation for about a hundred years in Germany and in Italy when the German printer Anton Koberger produced his illustrated edition of the Latin text in 1500, a copy of which is in the Santa Scolastica collections (IV.C.10). Koberger went on to print an edition in German in 1502.

In 1346 St Bridget had founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour commonly known as the Bridgetines. Her writings and in particular her devotional texts on Christ and the Virgin Mary circulated in manuscript form. The first printed editions date from the end of the 1470s and were produced in Venice, from the presses of Filippo di Pietro, and in Rome, by Johannes Bulle.

The 1500 Koberger edition, of which there is a copy in Subiaco, was published with the financial backing of the Tyrolese knight Florian Waldauf von Waldenstein and under the patronage of the Emperor Maximilian I. Koberger was chosen as the printer because he had several years of experience and was known for his ability to produce richly illustrated editions, of which the Revelationes became a further example. It contains 58 illustrations, of which seven are full-page images, while the rest occupy, in various combinations, a total of eighteen pages. These combinations often use the same woodblocks on different pages. Without counting the repetitions, thirty woodblocks were used to illustrate the edition.

Santa Brigitta, Revelationes

Santa Brigitta, Revelationes [Norimberga: 1500] (IV.C.10), carta h6v


The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue records six editions of the Revelationes which survive today and which were printed before Koberger’s. Several of these are illustrated but they all appear to follow, by and large, the iconographic model set by Bartholomaeus Gothan’s Lübeck edition printed in 1492.

The woodcut illustrations in the 1500 edition have traditionally been attributed to Albrecht Dürer, who was Koberger’s godson, ever since the German artist and scholar Johann David Passavant (1787-1861) advanced this hypothesis but the scholarly debate over the plausibility of the attribution has continued to the present day.

In the Subiaco copy of Koberger’s edition the illustrations have been coloured in with water-colour probably at some point in the eighteenth century. There is a manuscript note in Italian also dating from the same period written on one of the preliminary endleaves, which in translation reads: “Though the Revelations (of St Bridget) do not in themselves contain proofs of their veracity they have nevertheless been unanimously approved, after a very lengthy examination, by four Popes, which means they are to be revered in their entirety. Paolo Segneri – Panegyric on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary”. Paolo Segneri (1624-1694) was a Jesuit writer and preacher.  

The Biblia Latina printed in Venice by Simon Bevilaqua in 1498 contains 71 vignettes within the text and two large full-page woodcuts which illustrate the seven days of Creation and King Solomon’s dream. This is one example among others where a series of woodcut illustrations designed for the famous edition of the Bible in Niccolò Malermi’s Italian translation printed in 1490 by Lucantonio Giunta has been recycled in other 15th-century editions. These vignettes, some of which Giunta had already recycled from earlier editions of devotional texts, had a very wide circulation and were either directly recycled or indirectly copied very frequently in the 1490s and into the early years of the 15th century.


 Biblia Latina

Biblia Latina [Venezia: 1498] (II.C.11), Una delle caratteristiche vignette segnate ‘b’

Some of the vignettes carried out for this edition contain the initial ‘b’, which led Leo Olschki in 1902 to suggest that the designs could be attributed to two Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini and Giovanni Buonconsiglio. Arthur Hind later pointed out that ‘b’ must refer to the woodcutter rather than the artist who created the design and suggested for the first time that this person was, in his phrase, a ‘popular designer’ who could be identified among the group of illuminators who in the period which preceded and followed the introduction of printing in Venice played leading roles in the craft of book decoration in the city.  The American scholar Lilian Armstrong has more recently proposed that the artist who signs himself ‘b’ should be identified with the so-called ‘Master of the Pico Pliny’ also known more succinctly as the ‘Pico Master’.

Biblia Latina particolare 

Biblia Latina [Venezia: 1498] (II.C.11), Una delle caratteristiche vignette segnate ‘b’. Dettaglio