Christmas Countdown: 14 More Sleeps!


Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Pierpont Morgan Library M. 766), folio 29 verso (the back-side of the 29th leaf), early 15th century

First of all, a brief Latin lesson for y’all: Speculum Humanae Salvationis translates to Mirror of Human Salvation. This, my friends, is why everyone should know (at least basic) Latin!

The Speculum was an anonymous theological work that was especially popular in the late Middle Ages. It provided detailed typological descriptions of the redemption of man by showing how the events of the Old Testament ultimately led to the events of the New Testament. The Specula were some of the most common illuminated manuscripts, and were some of the most common incunabula. Think of these books as Medieval bestsellers. Move over, Twilight!

The different editions of the Speculum all tended to look similar: 25 lines per column, two columns per page, yadda yadda yadda. Usually 42 chapters, each illustrated with four pictures – one picture illustrating the New Testament and three pictures illustrating the Old Testament. If you were lucky, your Speculum had three bonus chapters.

The image above is an illustration from just one of the Specula. According to Karl W. Hiersemann, Adrian Wilson, and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, who catalogued this particular book, all of Morgan M. 766’s illustrations are “of very primitive character, without shading and with very little rendering of the ground or landscape. The costumes are partly imagined and partly those of the period.” Regarding the image above, they write that “as a result of the lack of perspective, the Christ child’s cradle is floating in the air. There is no suggestion of a manger or shelter of any kind.” So the artist was probably not an artist. Indeed, because the drawings and the text are in the same ink, the cataloguers suggest that the scribe actually wrote and drew. It’s alright, Scribe – your ability to write beautifully still makes you an artist in my book.

And, with that, I’m not going to say much else. I initially chose to include this image in the Christmas Countdown because I thought it was hilariously awful but, after doing a bit of research and finding out that a scribe was responsible, I’d feel a little bad going off about its faults. I mean, the guy tried. His picture may look like something you’d find on a proud parent’s fridge, but I’ll cut him some slack. It’s that time of year, eh?

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