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The Golden Bull
The most glorius edition of the oldest German law
Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. Vindob. 338, Prague, 1400



Further Pictures


Available as Vol. 11 of the series "Glanzlichter der Buchkunst"

The Viennese Codex 338 is a copy of the ”Golden Bull” made in 1400, with illumination of superior quality. It is therefore considered to be the most beautiful version of all manuscripts of this text that have survived to this day.
From an artistic point of view, the luxurious manuscript belongs to the tradition of Bohemian book painting. Its 48 miniatures and countless coloured initials enchant the beholder even today. The uniformity of the written script as well as the text layout contribute to the outstanding beauty of the manuscript and, together with the miniatures and initials, form a harmonious ensemble.
The manuscript is a document of prime importance also on a political and historical level, due to the finishing touch stating that it was made in the year 1400 on the initiative of the Roman and Bohemian King Wenceslas. The solemn copy was meant to legitimate Wenceslas’ claim to the office of Roman king which had just been withdrawn from him, and also the most eminent document in the negotiations with the Pope regarding the coronation of the German emperor in Rome.

The finest version of the Golden Bull

The particular charm of the manuscript resides in its 48 sumptuous miniatures. They are considered to be the work of a single anonymous master known as ”Master of the Golden Bull”. The painted scenes all refer to the election of the emperor and the exercise of rights.
The background of the miniatures is either applied with gold leaf or in colour, and damascened with shell gold. The interlace surrounding the miniatures comprises acanthus leaves in blue, rose, green and grey. Here and there drop-shaped buds in gold leaf are playfully added to the branching foliage.
The scenes of the Golden Bull are characterised by a solemn atmosphere. An important feature is the painter’s predilection for exuberant plies and rounded forms, for strong and curly hair and strongly projecting noses.
The beginnings of chapters and some paragraphs are marked by coloured initials some of which are ornate with gold and elaborate interlace. A highlight of the art of initial painting as practised by specialised artists is reached with the integration of figural depiction's. The initial in its most noteworthy artistic form thus becomes a figural miniature. This form of historiated initial occurs twice in the manuscript, both times to mark important passages in the text.

A masterpiece of calligraphy

The script of the codex also deserves great attention. It is a beautifully calligraphed Gothic book script (textualis formata or textura) written by an anonymous scribe. The chapter beginnings are all highlighted with red ink, while some at the beginning of the manuscript are outlined in golden letters in a highly representative manner.

A prominent source of history

The Golden Bull, promulgated in 1365 by Emperor Charles IV with the consent of two diets in Nürnberg and Metz, represented the main constitutional law of the German Empire and, as a basic constitutional law, remained in force for nearly half a millennium, up until 1806. Its main purpose was to regulate the election of the German Emperor.
King Wenceslas IV, son of Emperor Charles IV, commissioned a copy in 1400 for political reasons, which was then produced in his famous court workshop. The luxurious Latin manuscript contains not only the Golden Bull after which it is named (aurea bulla imperialium constitucionum) but also a treatise on the propitious time of warfare in Italy (tractatus de habilitate temporis ad processum versus Italiam), a letter on King Wenceslas, the successor of Charles IV, (epistola de successore), and a directory of cities and castles in Tuscia (civitates et castra). It is the only legal work among the seven known codices which have been confirmed as originating from the huge library formerly belonging to Wenceslas, including the famous Wenceslas Bible, the oldest German de luxe Bible manuscript we know of.

The commentary volume

The comprehensive scholarly commentary by Armin Wolf offers an extensive history of the manuscript as well as a detailed description, comments and interpretations of the artistic decoration from an art historian’s point of view. It further explains the significance of the manuscript, provides a comprehensive bibliography, and a collection of pictures selected according to aspects of legal history which offer comparative material on the legal status of the Roman German Emperor and his electors. It constitutes an important contribution to legal archaeology and is much acclaimed by specialists in this domain.

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