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Beware of Ghosts!: Avoiding Ghost Editions of the Revelations of St. Bridget

St. Bridget of Sweden, woodcut

By Nora Epstein |

In the final months of the fifteenth century, the Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger completed the first of two editions of his Revelationes Sancte Birgitte under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The resulting Latin and German editions were profusely illustrated and loosely based on a 1492 Revelationes printed in Lübeck (USTC 743481). In the centuries since their publication, these editions have been at the center of heated debates among art historians and bibliographers alike.

St. Bridget full page woodcut
Revelationes Sancte Birgitte, DePaul University, SpCRI. 248.29 B8519r1500.

In 1934, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art included their Latin copy of Revelationes Sancte Birgitte in an exhibit on the illustrations of Koberger’s godson, Albrecht Dürer. However, the museum carefully noted that not all of the 58 woodcuts could be definitely ascribed to the renaissance master at the center of their exhibit. In the years since the exhibit, art historians are still seeking clear proof of Dürer’s involvement with his godfather’s book. Scholars have suggested a number of possibilities: that only one woodcut was created by Dürer, that his workshop executed them based on his designs, that artists such as Wechtlin, Peter Vischer the Elder or Kulmbach should be credited, or perhaps a yet unidentified ‘Bridget Master’ completed the cuts. Despite the debate over authorship, the complex and expressive compositions of these Northern Renaissance woodcuts effectively complement the mystical visions revealed to St. Bridget.

St. Bridget of Sweden, a fourteenth-century mystic, was incredibly popular in the years before the Reformation and her prayers are frequently found in early modern personal devotional texts, like Books of Hours. Koberger’s richly illustrated book depicting this celebrated saint survives in several copies, including in the collections of our PWRB partner, DePaul University (SpCRI. 248.29 B8519r1500USTC 743482). Before entering DePaul’s collection, this hand-colored copy was in the library of American philanthropist and prominent book collector, Estelle Doheny. The Doheny Collection was primarily acquired in the years after the criminal trials of her husband, oil tycoon and a key figure in the Teapot Dome Scandal, Edward Laurence Doheny. When Christie’s closed the Doheny Collection auction 1989, it set the record for the highest price obtained for a book collection sold at auction, 37.4 million dollars. After spending time with DePaul’s remarkable copy of Revelationes, it is not hard to see why Doheny selected it to join her prized collection.

Although the Latin edition survives in over 100 copies, ambiguities in the colophon have led many bibliographers to create ghost editions of the work. At the end of the book, Koberger notes that it was finished in ‘Anno domini .M.ccccc.xxi. mensis Septe[m]bris.’ Both contemporary rare book catalogues and centuries-old bibliographies have interpreted this line to mean that the book was printed in September of 1521. However, those familiar with Koberger’s print output make it clear that the book was actually printed on 21st of September 1500 and the final roman numerals refer to the day it was completed. The lack of spacing between the year and the day makes it easy for a bibliographer to misinterpret the entire numeral as the year.  By understanding the copies cataloged as 1500 and 1521 are the same edition, we see a much fuller picture of this book’s history and libraries will be happy to know the book they considered to be from 1521 is actually an incunabulum.

Revelations of St. Bridget, colophon
Revelationes Sancte Birgitte, colophon. Often confused as 1521, the date is 21st September 1500.

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Nora Epstein is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching how religious imagery during the long English Reformation impacted book culture. In particular, she focuses on the impact and popular reception of printed English devotional images. After receiving her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, she earned a Masters in Book History from the University of St Andrews. Most recently, she was a Special Collections and Archives Librarian at DePaul University. You can follow her on Twitter at @NoraEpstein

All images used with the permission of the DePaul University Library.