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The Liber Precum
Highlight of the Cologne Book Art
St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Ms. Lat.O.v.l.206, Cologne, between 1480 and 1490

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. CVIII

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Further Pictures

 

The facsimile reproduction of the "Liber Precum" now in St. Petersburg places a hitherto unknown masterpiece of late medieval illumination at the centre of interest of both bibliophiles and scholars alike. Made between 1480 and 1490 in Cologne, one of the foremost schools of illumination at the time, the small-sized volume presents a number of particular features which make it stand out among the countless prayer books produced in this period, conferring on it an unmistakable character and significance. One of its extraordinary features is a so far unparalleled choice of texts. The biggest surprise, however, is the illustrated cycle on the life and passion of Christ, which in terms of form function, subject matter and because of its large content, presents a true highlight of 15th Century book illumination.

41 full page miniatures on 99 folios - a unique illustrated cycle on the life of Christ

The most striking feature of the "Liber Precum" now in St. Petersburg, is no doubt its cycle of illustrations, which is truly unmatched because of its extent and its narrative and artistic qualities. It constitutes the most complete and iconographically speaking richest picture cycle on the life and passion of Christ ever made in this era of book painting. A total of 41 full-page miniatures illustrate the prayers in the first portion of the manuscript, which is now the object of a faithfully reproduced facsimile edition. Special attention is to be drawn to the fact that the illustrations on the left hand page are paired with the relevant texts on the page opposite. When following the natural line of sight, they provide the visual impulse necessary to grasp the theme and mood conveyed in the subsequent prayer texts. The textual significance of the manuscript as a devotional book is mirrored by the overall tone underlying the miniatures, intended to convey all kinds of emotions. The dynamic figures interlinked by eloquent gestures, mimics and a certain inner tension, the atmospheric scenery and the subtle colour tones are all dominating elements that give the illustrations their particular charm, obviously the work of a highly talented master of his genre. During the second half of the 15th century, the artist was one of the leading protagonists of the painting school in Cologne from which emanated decisive impulses for the development of panel painting in Germany throughout the 15th century. One of its prominent masters, Stephan Lochner, is thought to have perfected the so-called "Weicher Stil" (Soft Style) in late Gothic painting. The foremost achievement of the painting style developed in Cologne - a mixture of the delicate Soft Style and a new realistic approach - not only dominated the large art form of panel painting but also entered the sphere of book illumination where it was mainly used in full-page miniatures. The models used for our manuscript to which its creator owes his name, show it as being the work of an outstanding artist who mastered the new style down to the tiniest details. In this prayer book, the "Master of the Liber Precum in St. Petersburg" created a jewel to enrich with a further facet the large and varied corpus of German late medieval illuminated books.

A monument to modern piety

Another striking feature is the choice of text, which deviates largely from the usual scheme: the manuscript contains two larger portions of text that were written and decorated separately. The first one comprising a sequence of prayers on the Vita Christi (life and passion of Christ), while the second one assembles a series of prose and verse sermons as well as a further series of prayers. This choice of texts reflects the ambition to deepen the personal devotion of the readers and to make them follow the example and teachings of Christ in their everyday life. The work is thus in line with the tradition of "devotio rnoderria", an important spiritual movement founded in the 14th century and whose everyday mysticism led to it being ever more widely acclaimed in a time of political upheaval, which also had an impact on ecclesiastical matters.

A German prayer book in the hands of a German princess at the Imperial Court of Russia

It seems a stroke of fate that our manuscript was kept in the summer residence of Empress Maria Fyodorovna in Pavlovsk until the year 1929. Sophie Dorothée of Wuerttemberg had married the Russian Grand Duke and later Tsar Paul I in 1776 and enjoyed wide popularity throughout the country due to her work for charity and as a patroness of the arts. Her heirs finally bequeathed the prayer book to the Russian National Library in nearby Petersburg, located only 30 km from Pavlovsk Palace.

   
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