This year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. At Aberdeen, we have a book with a binding decorated with images of four individuals who helped shape the Reformation in some way.
The book, printed in Italy in 1525, is a collection of plays by the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes. The binding was made, in or after 1545, in Wittenberg in Germany, the town where Martin Luther wrote and published his 95 theses which initiated the Reformation.
The covering is made from tawed pigskin. Tawing is a process of preserving using alum salts, amongst other things, to cure the skin. Alum-tawed pigskin is one of the best skins to decorate. If you dampen the surface of a book freshly bound in alum-tawed skin, it is easy to emboss it with metal stamps or rolls. It then dries to an extremely hard surface that holds the decoration for hundreds of years.
So what’s on our book? Starting at the centre, what you notice is a date, 1545, but there are also depictions of four of the nine Muses. We have Thalia, the muse of comedy – appropriate to the text perhaps – Terpsichore, the muse of dance, Euterpe, muse of ancient poetry, song and dance, and Calliope, muse of epic poetry. There is also a depiction of the god Apollo, teacher of the muses. All quite fitting for a Humanist Greek text.
Framing this central design is a roll containing roundels with portrait heads. Closer observation shows them to be key figures in the history of the Reformation. We have Jan Hus, Erasmus, Melanchthon and Luther. It is a ‘family tree’ of reformist thought.
Wittenberg was the city of the workshops of the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach, a close friend of Luther, not only produced paintings but set up his own print shop to produce broadsheets and pamphlets which distributed the message of the Reformation throughout Europe. Cranach was a canny businessman who realised the power of the image when distributing a message and specialised in woodcuts and wood engravings to illustrate his printings. It is quite possible that the stamps made for this binding were also made in these workshops. Certainly, when we compare them to portraits by Cranach, we can note a similarity in style. The influence of Cranach is strong, and even if not his workshop’s handwork these images are of exceptional quality for a binding.
We can look at them in some detail and compare them to Cranach portraits. Jan Hus, the Czech reformer, died in 1415 and so was long dead by the time this binding was made. Hus, however, was seen by Luther as one of the predecessors of the Reformation and there were many woodcuts available of his likeness. Cranach, in fact, made this woodcut of Hus and it is quite reasonable to suggest that this roundel was certainly influenced by these.
This portrait of Erasmus from Cranach’s workshop dates from around 1533. Cranach never met Erasmus but copied this portrait from a miniature by Holbein. There is much more of the wiggly line of Cranach rather than the solid still hand of Holbein in the binding portrait.
Phillip Melanchthon was well known to Cranach, however, and he produced more than one portrait of the wiry, shy friend of Luther. Melanchthon was also the teacher and friend of two of the owners of our book.
And Lastly Luther himself, painted many times throughout his life by Cranach and here, shown in jowly relief on our binding.
So already we can see this is a great binding. Interesting materials, well made, intriguing designs. We can place it: Wittenberg; Date it: 1545 or later; and, rather wonderfully, we know the name of the person who bound it.
Hidden in amongst the roundel portraits is this depiction of an owl mobbed by two other birds and the initials C. N. This has been identified as Conrad Neidel, a bookbinder who worked in Wittenberg until his death in 1568. It has been suggested that the owl was his symbol, a pun on the German for bird of prey, Neidvogel. Neidel is listed amongst tradesmen of Wittenberg becoming a Master Binder in 1542 but as with many craftsmen, there is no other information about him. However, it is still remarkable to be able to name the binder of such an early book. There are at least three bindings by Neidel in British libraries. All three bear the date of 1545 and have the medallion portraits.
Perhaps the date merely states when the binding was completed – but there is another possible reason. 1545 was the year that the Council of Trent first met as an organised, firm response to the Protestant Reformation: the beginning of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It is hard not to speculate that this binding, with the medallion portraits of four of the foremost recognised Reformers, might be a piece of propaganda, reminding people of the significance of, or even celebrating, the achievements of the Reformation? If Luther and his followers were the first to successfully and comprehensively use the power of print to promote their cause, why not use book bindings too?
Special Collections Centre
University of Aberdeen