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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

November 2018: Liber Chronicarum (The Book of Chronicles), Nuremberg, 1493.

Treasure of the Month for November 2018 is a book commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle: one of Durham Cathedral’s collection of eighty-three incunabula. The name given to a book printed before 1501, the term ‘incunable’ (or ‘incunabulum’) comes from the Latin for ‘cradle’ – literally, therefore, a book from the cradle (the first fifty years) of the printing press. Although printing had existed in different forms for centuries prior to the production of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible in 1455, the widespread acceptance and adoption of the mechanics of Gutenberg’s press changed the face of book production in medieval Europe in a matter of decades. The precise moulding of Gutenberg’s movable type and a new, oil-based ink which he developed, meant that printed books could be produced in vast quantities, and to a high standard. Smaller, cheaper books ensured that knowledge was no longer the privilege of the vastly wealthy; language became more standardised; and ideas were able to spread much more fluidly than they had previously. Within the first fifty years of printing, there were around 10 million printed books in existence, with print runs of some single copies in some larger printing workshops hitting 1,000 volumes or more.

 

One of the most famous incunabulum in existence, the Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world from both a biblical and a classical perspective. Named from the German city in which it was produced, the volume was originally commissioned by two merchants – Sebald Schreyer and his son-in-law Sebastian Kammermeister – and trusted to the workshop of the celebrated German printer Anton Koberger. Around 1,500 copies of the Latin language edition, with text by Hartmann Schedel, were issued in July 1493 (of which this edition is one), with a further one thousand German language copies issued five months later. Upon publication of Liber Chronicarum, Koberger was said to have exclaimed “Never before has your like been printed. A thousand hands will grasp you with eager desire.”

 

It is particularly noteworthy for its 1,809 woodcut illustrations, and the fact that it was the first printed work in which text and images were successfully integrated. As well as following the story of human history as related in the Bible, it also included the histories of a number of important cities including Nuremberg itself, Constantinople, Venice, Byzantium and Jerusalem.

The accompanying illustrations of the cities therefore constituted the first example of maps – however primitive – in printed text in the Western world. These woodcuts were the work of several artists, including the German Albrecht Durer, one of the most influential figures of the Northern Renaissance (likely while he was still an apprentice).

 

Durer’s high quality woodcuts ensured he had made a name for himself as an established artist by the time he was in his early twenties. A correspondent of other artists including Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Durer’s father had initially wanted his son to follow in the family trade and become a goldsmith; however, prodigious talent in drawing saw him apprenticed at the age of fifteen to the printing workshop of his godfather, Anton Koberger.

 

The Nuremberg Chronicle is one of a number of books that will be on display in Durham Cathedral’s Refectory Library on Saturday 17 November, as part of the Treasures of Durham Cathedral Library: Art events, which will highlight some of the other significant (and some lesser known) artists whose works reside in volumes in Durham Cathedral Library. These events also allow visitors the chance to visit the Refectory Library, which is usually closed to the public. Tickets £5 (£4.50 concession). Purchase tickets online for the 2pm and 3.30pm via our What's On page, or call the Cathedral Visitor Desk on 0191 338 7178.

 

Durham Cathedral Library’s collections are also available for consultation by interested parties; appointments must be made in advance by contacting Library@durhamcathedral.co.uk. See the Library's page for further information.