This pair of German miniature picture Bibles entitled Dess Alten Testaments Mittler: Dess Neuen Testaments Mittler, was produced by two sisters from Augsburg in the late seventeenth century. They were most likely designed for use in private devotion. Johanna Christina (or Christiana) Küsel (born 1665, active until about 1700) was responsible for the designs and Maria Magdalena (active about 1688 – 1702), was the engraver. Whereas it is thought most seventeenth century ‘thumb’ Bibles were destined for children, the Küsels’ Bible, with its complex and intricate engravings, is likely to have been intended as a portable object for private contemplation rather than children’s education. By their size, these engravings afforded an intimacy appropriate for private viewing and the books as a whole were intended to act as an ‘intermediary’ (‘mittler’) to aid spiritual growth.
The books have been researched, presented and interpreted by Josephine Neil, a PhD candidate in Theology and the Arts, at King’s College London.
The books were printed without place or date, but we know the sisters belonged to a family of talented printmakers in Augsburg, and were active during the second half of the seventeenth century. The title page mentions their name as the designers and engravers, but with the alternative spelling of ‘Kuslin’ instead of ‘Küsel’. The family workshop probably produced images as illustrations in numerous shapes and forms, adapting and reusing compositions for various purposes and formats. The sisters’ father was the engraver Melchior Küsel and their grandfather was Matthaeus Merian, whose most famous engravings were for a history of the Bible published in Frankfurt in 1625, known as the Icones Biblicae. Merian’s engravings dealt in depth with the religious concepts of the time by emphasising the individual’s relationship to God over exterior acts of public worship. The purpose of the Icones, Merian stated in his printed dedication, was ‘not only to amuse, but also, and this pointedly, to enlighten and encourage one’s soul, to trigger reflection of the history involved’. Merian called the Icones ‘a small, comfortable edition of the Holy Bible in hopes that it be not only a feast for the eyes but also be moving and maybe put some fear of God into those that need it’. The Küsel sisters had first-hand knowledge of their grandfather’s prints, and thus based their engravings on his compositions, adapting them to suit the scale and purpose of their miniature books. The dimensions of the miniature image area are 33 x 35 mm, at least 1/6th the size of Merian’s prints for the Icones Biblicae, which measure 102 x 146 mm inside the platemark.
Reformation and Private Devotion in Ausberg
An increasing emphasis on private devotion and personal piety in German speaking countries during the seventeenth century created an environment favourable to the production of engraved biblical cycles and also opened up the manuscript market for them. As stress was laid on individual piety as a way of drawing Christians closer to God, so the demands for books and images to use in private devotion grew across the social spectrum.
Artists, firmly situated in the middle classes in Augsburg, had to work with the religious constraints imposed by the Reformation. The theological context of the miniature picture Bibles stems from Luther’s teaching, still prevalent in Augsburg in the late seventeenth century, more than one hundred years after his death in 1546.
Miniature personal prayer books were the accoutrements of fashionable circles in Catholic countries as well, as for example seen in this splendid portrait drawing by Peter Paul Rubens of his young wife Helena Fourment in the Courtauld’s collection. Dressed sumptuously, as though about to step out, Helena Fourment is shown here holding what appears to be a miniature prayer book in her hand.
In Protestant personal devotion, viewers were encouraged to use the printed image within the context of ‘self-reformation’. The image and text together formed a meditative programme that expressed sacred truths, which the reader was invited to meditate upon for the purpose of conforming the soul to the Divine will. The image was therefore an aid in gauging the soul’s closeness or distance from the Divine and a prompt for furthering that relationship.
'God have mercy on me, sinner that I am'
Man is predestined to sin. The men and women of the Old Testament were not saints to be worshipped and revered. Luther insisted on their human failings, their need for forgiveness from God, and if they were protected and sustained by God it was not because of their own merits, but because of the will of God and consequently the strength of their faith. Thus the histories of the Old Testament became manifestations of Luther’s doctrine of salvation not through good works, but through faith alone: sola fide. There is nothing heroic in the Küsels’ treatments of the biblical figures. Images of murder, grief and sorrow abound, for example: The Death of Eli (I Samuel IV); the Murder of Abel (Genesis IV); and Anger of the Lord against Israel (II Samuel XXIV). The drama of divine retribution is depicted in the Death of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus X).
The Importance of Humility
According to Lutheran theology, following the law does not earn one salvation and good works do not eradicate sins – it is not the person who performs works and worships images who is saved; it is the one who admits sin and humbly prostrates himself before God. Therefore, the figures we see in the Old Testament miniature engravings demonstrate great humility and kneel in reverence to the God who cannot be seen but only heard, as indicated by the Hebrew script in the prints representing episodes in Genesis IX, Genesis II and Exodus III and in Christ’s transfiguration in the New Testament. Detailed facial expressions and animated gestures, perhaps surprising on such a scale, convey awe and wonder.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Protestant sympathies lies in Merian’s and the Küsels’ depiction of Daniel chapter 7 which follows the Protestant eschatological theory (doctrine concerning the final events in the history of humankind) of the “four monarchies” with its harrowing depiction of the fourth Beast and its little horn, representing Rome and papal tyranny respectively. The Küsels’ Beasts, in contrast to Merian’s depiction, are altogether removed from the context of Daniel’s dream and the ‘fourth Beast’ is made the most prominent and noticeable feature of the engraving, boldly staring directly out at the reader.
Christ as Maker of the World
The first plate introduces the context for the New Testament, detailing Christ as Saviour of the world (Salvator Mundi) .The triumphant Christ depicts how faith in Him defeats sin and death in order to redeem mankind. In contrast to the fall of Adam in the Old Testament, the figure of the Saviour proclaims his coming, his victory over sin, death and hell, and how faith alone breaks the chains of sin, in accordance with Luther’s theology. Together the images facilitate the double harvest of two different kinds of fruit: implicitly typological, they call to mind the sins plucked by Adam and Eve from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and equally recall the absolution of sins from the Tree of Life, or the Cross of Christ.
Divine Judgement and Salvation
Divine judgment and salvation are emphasised in many of the Küsels’ prints, as in Matthew XXIV and XXV. For the portrayal of Matthew XXIV, instead of the prophecy about the destruction of the ‘Temple’ at the end of days, the wrath of the Divine is directed towards the Catholic churches of what could be Augsburg, discernible in the background. In addition, strong emphasis is placed on the torment of the damned in Matthew XXV, to remind readers of the ever-present dangers of falling into sin.
Prominence is also given to selected episodes from the Acts of the Apostles, detailing the conversion of Paul, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles’ mission, as well as apocalyptic scenes from the Book of Revelation. As well as drawing out the distinction between the Law of Moses and the Gospel, the Old Testament is also illustrated as foreshadowing events in the New. For example, the vision prophesied by Micah that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem, is envisaged by the Küsels as Christ’s Nativity.
Making and Remaking the Miniature Bibles
In making their picture books, Christina and Magdalena Küsel compressed the Old and New Testaments into a selection of prints representing tales from each book of the Bible. A German text, probably printed separately from the engravings as letterpress, identifies the scene along with the book and chapter of the Bible from which it derives. There are 132 prints in the Old Testament and 131 prints in the New.
The devotional purpose of the engravings also coincided with an interest in and taste for beautifully crafted small objects. The sisters utilized traditional religious subjects but also drew attention to their skills as designers of complex engravings: their refinement, craftsmanship and physical scale all require close scrutiny, as well as being highly portable devotional supports. Such delicate and complicated works were not likely produced en masse for children or as popularising instruments, but rather for an educated elite within Augsburg and beyond.
The fine silverwork of the Kuslers’ Bibles, including the clasps engraved with a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, is original to the books but the leather binding as well as the marbled endpapers on the inside and the trimming and gilding of the pages are likely to have been later additions, possibly dating from the Victorian period. It was acquired by the collector and artist Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), who was a devout Christian, in a small town near Nuremberg in 1851.
It may have been at this time that the order of the pages was inadvertently altered. For example, in this set the Fall in Genesis III (numbered p. 6) comes before the Creation of Man in Genesis II (numbered p.4), reversing the natural order of the Genesis narratives. Further research into these books is needed to find out whether this was indeed a mistake on the part of the binders or whether there may have been another reason behind this reversal.
The two pairs of oval silver plaques on the covers are interesting: they show a putto carrying a cross (recto) and a putto holding a basket (verso).
At first glance, the putto with the basket appears to be sowing seeds, but if one examines his left hand very closely, he can be seen as holding three nails. The putto in the other circular medallion is carrying the Cross. Together the putto are symbolic of Christ’s Passion. Nails and other tools of the Crucifixion held by angels are common motifs in representations of the Passion. The exact reason for the basket is not clear and its presence seems incongruous in this context.
This is not a unique example. At least two miniature bindings with similar silverwork medallions are known, showing on one side a putto carrying the Cross and on the other a putto holding a basket in one hand and three nails in the other. One of the books is a morning and evening prayerbook to be used at church or at home, published by Christoph Endter, printer and publisher in Nuremberg, in 1672. The size of the binding is comparable, at 7.5 cm high. The prayerbook is dedicated to a high ranking family from Augsburg.
Here the nails are very clear to see, and there is no mistaking them for seeds. This other book, which was also published by Christoph Endters in Nuremberg, in 1668, has an identical silver binding and again similar medallions to the Courtauld bible picture books. It is in the Bamberg State Library.
We are grateful to Mr van Noordwijk for generously sharing his vast knowledge on miniature religious books, and for supplying this information on comparable bindings.