Fifteenth-century illustrated editions in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco – Part II, 2


Fifteenth-century illustrated editions in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco – Part II, 2

Part II,2 - Devotional texts: Sermones and Meditationes

Among the noteworthy illustrated devotional books found at Subiaco are two collections of the Sermones de tempore et de sanctis of St Bernard of Clairvaux and one of the Meditationes vitae Christi.

The first edition from this group contains the Sermones of St Bernard together with a collection of his homilies and letters, printed in Venice for Lucantonio Giunta by the German printer Johannes Emericus de Spira, in 1495.  St Bernard’s Sermons would clearly have been an important book for the library of a Benedictine monastery.  Six earlier editions survive but de Spira’s is the first one to be printed in Venice. 

Among those earlier surviving editions, the first to contain illustrations was the Dutch translation of the Sermones printed in Zwolle by Peter van Os in 1484-1485, which was reissued by the same printer ten years later.  While this Dutch edition contained eighteen illustrations showing various characters and episodes from the Bible, in the 1495 Venetian edition held in Subiaco only the first page, A1r, is illustrated. 

The page is framed by a woodcut border characteristic of contemporary Venetian production, decorated with flowers, fruits and animals, and made up of two blocks occupying the top and left-hand margin of the page.  The left-hand block displays a ‘putto’ at the centre.

This type of border is found frequently in the years before 1495 in the technique known as ‘woodcut miniatures’, mentioned in the Introduction, which is characteristically found above all in early decorated copies of printed editions. It was a process the aim of which was to speed up the decoration of individual copies by printing, after the text itself had gone through the press, single blocks, especially borders, to which an illuminator could then add finishing touches.

But in the case of this Venetian edition the presence of the same border in several copies would suggest that the woodblocks for the two decorative borders were inserted into the forme alongside the moveable type, a common practice by the time this edition was printed.

In addition to the border, the first page of this edition of St Bernard’s Sermones displays a rectangular woodcut image of the Annunciation; at the base of the woodblock the words of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary are engraved: ‘Ave Maria gratia plena’.  This image appears to have been used for the first time by Giunta in his edition of the Vita di Gesù Cristo e della Vergine Maria which was printed for him by Giovanni Rosso, originally from Vercelli, in the spring of 1492 (it is worth noting that the woodblock was not used in the Italian vernacular Bible published by Giunta in 1490, discussed in an earlier blog).  This scene, together with the border and the two woodcut initials ‘S’ and ‘Q’, also found on A1r, thus make up the edition’s illustrative apparatus.

 This choice of image reflects the importance of Bernard of Clairvaux in promoting the dissemination of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the first half of the thirteenth century, and it is also linked to the text since the first sermon in the book is a commentary on verses 26-27 from the first chapter of St Luke’s Gospel: “In illo tempore, missus est angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galileae, cui nomen Nazareth, ad virginam desponsatam viro, cui nomen erat Joseph, de domo David, et nomen virginis Maria” (“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth.  To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David: and the virgin’s name was Mary”).

San Bernardo, Sermones de tempore et de sanctis, Dettaglio

 St Bernard, Sermones de tempore et de sanctis [Venezia: 1495] (XVII.A.19), f.A1r

The Sermones of St Vincent Ferrer were widely read in the fifteenth century.  The Dominican preacher had been canonised in 1455, thirty-four years after his death at Vannes in 1419.  The large number of surviving printed editions – sixteen in all, up to the end of the fifteenth century – show that his sermons remained popular even after the introduction of printing.

The edition held in Subiaco is in three volumes.  Subiaco has two copies but one is imperfect and missing the first two volumes.  The illustrations in this edition are limited to the title-pages in each volume, which all have the same full-page woodcut showing the saint and including a number of elements which were becoming standard in depictions of him: he is wearing the white robes of the Dominican Order, the index finger of his right hand is raised in the act of preaching, while his left hand grasps a crucifix and a lily together, representing his support for a Holy War.  After 1398 Ferrer had left the court at Avignon of Pope Benedict XIII, whose confessor and counsellor he had been, to spend the remaining years of his life as a travelling preacher, mostly in Spain. 

His sermons became rapidly associated with not only stories of miracles but also of hardened sinners repenting and the conversion of heretics and Spanish Jews and Muslims.  His texts contain numerous antisemitic references, clearly linked to the strongly anti-Jewish measures introduced by Benedict XIII during his papacy, including the Valladolid laws of 1411 and the disputation of Toulouse in 1413-1414.

San Vincenzo Ferrer, Sermones de tempore et sanctis [Venezia: 1496]

St Vincent Ferrer, Sermones de tempore et sanctis [Venezia: 1496] (II.C.19.1), f. A1r. The sixteenth-century note of ownership 'Iste liber est Sacri Monasterij Casinensis' (‘This book belongs to the holy monastery of Cassino’) indicates that the volume was owned by the Benedictine monastery at Montecassino.  One of the monks from there must have brought the book to Subiaco.

In the upper right-hand corner of the woodcuts God is shown with the flame of the Holy Spirit, towards which the saint turns his gaze and raises a pointing finger – another recurrent element in his visual iconography, indicating the divine inspiration of his preaching. 

Pictorial depictions of St Vincent Ferrer are found in Italy over the course of the fifteenth century, especially in the area round Venice and Padua, painted by some of the most famous artists of the period, such as Giovanni Bellini’s polyptych (c. 1470) in the Venetian church of St John and St Paul (known in Venetian dialect as San Zanipolo) or the central panel of the Griffoni polyptych by Francesco del Cossa, dated 1472-1473 and today in the National Gallery in London, with its predella, painted in the same years by Ercole de’ Roberti and now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Rome, showing stories from the life of the saint.


Giovanni Bellini, Polittico di San Vincenzo Ferrer (1464-1470)

Giovanni Bellini, Polyptych with St Vincent Ferrer (1464-1470), Venice, San Zanipolo

The Latin edition of the Meditationes vitae Christi held in Subiaco was printed in Venice by the printer Manfredo Bonelli, a native of Piedmont, in 1497.  Over fifty copies survive today. The work contains episodes from the New Testament, divided up by days of the week, on which readers could reflect and meditate.

The text, one of the most significant and widespread devotional works in medieval Europe, has been traditionally attributed to St Bonaventure but more probably it was composed by another Franciscan author.  It was written at the beginning of the thirteenth century in Tuscany.  How the work came into being – in particular the date of composition, its author and the language in which it was first written – is still the object of scholarly discussion; what is clear, however, is its closeness to Franciscan culture, evident in the references to the theme of paupertas, to a number of terms which derive from the Regula of the Order, and to the episodes taken from the Legenda maior of St Bonaventure and the Legenda of St Clare.

From the very beginnings of the work’s dissemination in manuscript form – over two hundred copies survive today – it was frequently accompanied by illustrations.  As for the illustrated editions printed in the fifteenth century, about fifteen of these survive, among which the Bonelli edition held in Subiaco stands out as unique because in it the illustrations accompany the Latin text, whereas the other illustrated editions all appear to contain the Italian text.  An antecedent of the Latin text printed by Bonelli, which also includes the Versiculi arboris vite Christi and the so-called Canticum de sanctissimo nomine Jesu Christi, the respective authorship of which in the ISTC is ascribed to Bonaventure and Giovanni Peckham, can be found in the edition printed in Pavia in 1490 and attributed to the printers Francesco Girardengo and Giovanni Antonio Birreta working for Giacomo di Pochidrappi da Borgofranco (ISTC ib00896000).

The Bonelli edition contains, on the recto and verso of its first leaf, two large woodcuts of the Crucifixion.  The copy in Subiaco is bound with two sixteenth-century editions: a Meditatio deuota Passionis Domini nostri Iesu Christi, also illustrated with images of the Crucifixion, and a Summaria per confessarsi brevissimo printed in gothic type and very imperfect.

Meditationes vitae Christi [Venezia, 1497], A1v crocifissione                                                      Meditationes vitae Christi [Venezia, 1497], A1r deposizione

Meditationes vitae Christi [Venezia, 1497] (II.D.12/2), A1r-A1v