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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Medieval Encyclopedia

In this day, it's hard to imagine an artist with so little ego that he never signed any of his work, or one that could go an entire lifetime with little or no lasting recognition. One Such artist was Erhard Reuwich. Okay, so he's not totally anonymous. He was probably born sometime around 1450 though that's only a rough guess. He seems to have worked in the Rhine River Valley near Heidelberg. And, though enough of his drawings and engravings exist to give him a name, his greatest work is only an attribution based upon the fact that one of the drawings in it looks like one he did of a Turk about the same time. Reuwich is said to have been the illustrator, perhaps even the writer, of one of the first ever encyclopedias. (This attribution is disputed by some experts.)
Venus and Mars, c.1480,
Master of the Housebook
If you're envisioning a multi-volume Britannica forget it. The roughly bound book is first of all a hand-lettered, hand illustrated one-of-a-kind tome depicting everything from half a suit of armor (to show how its put together) to the latest invention called an aquamanile--basically a finger bowl (which must have come in handy given the scarcity of silverware at the time). The book is titled, Love and War: A Manual for Life in the Late Middle Ages, though it undoubtedly had a somewhat less literary title in its previous life as a reference book in a medieval castle library. The volume seems to have been a family manual for making love, war, sugar cookies, laxatives, and stain removers (among other things). The artist, often referred to as the Housebook Master, seems to have had sense of humor as well, depicting the Joseph, in a Holy Family painting, as hiding behind a bench, rolling apples past the infant Jesus to amuse him.

Lover's Garden, c.1480,  Master of the Housebook
The Sun and his Children,
c. 1480, Master of the Housebook 
Even the tools of war apparently had more than one use. He shows a ladder used for scaling castle wall which seems also to have been applicable for courting lovely young damsels. In another illustration, involving astrology, a young man waits in a bath while a young lady wearing no more than a sweet smile dips a toe to test the waters. To the right are the words, "Beautiful bodies parched by love's heat, My children find love's duties sweet." (They must have been Aquarians.) If all this is starting to sound interesting, you can have one of seven hundred, limited edition copies for the immodest price of $1,980 each. It would make a great coffee table book to impress your friends. The original goes for somewhat more than that.

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