A devotional work of unknown authorship, the Speculum humanae salvationis first appeared in Europe in the 1320s. To the modern mind, its central concept – that everything in the New Testament is prefigured by events in the Old Testament – seems not only strange but somewhat abstruse. Yet the Speculum was not intended for scholars. Aimed at ordinary people of sound faith and limited education, it relied heavily on illustrations to communicate its messages – and the methodology proved very popular. Several hundred manuscript copies of the Speculum were made in workshops before 1500.
The edition produced by German scribe-turned-printer Gunther Zainer in 1473 is a marriage of the new art of typography and the older craft of woodcutting. When they learned in the early 1470s that Zainer intended to print illustrated books, the guild of woodcutters in the south German city of Augsburg tried to prevent to him because they were keen to preserve their image-making prerogative. Determined to proceed with his plans, Zainer found a powerful ally in Abbot Melchior, head of the Benedictine monastery of Saints Ulrich and Afra on the outskirts of Augsburg. Not only did Melchior arrange for a printing press to be set up within the abbey, one of the Benedictine monks, Brother Johannes, contributed a commentary to the text in both Latin and German.
To keep the peace, however, Zainer abided by the stipulation that all woodcuts were to be carved by guild members, not by himself. If the Speculum's illustrations look a little clumsy and naive to the modern eye, it should be remembered that they were executed by woodworkers rather than artists. It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that a true master of composition, Albrecht Durer, became involved in the manufacture of woodcuts for the book trade.
There are 192 woodcuts in Zainer's Speculum (a few of them used more than once), hand-coloured after printing in red, yellow, green and brown. The illustration shown here depicts Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as described in the third chapter of Genesis. Satan, the tempter, is presented as a serpent with a pleasant human face.
The 1473 Speculum is considered one of the masterpieces of the early printing period. One of only twenty-five complete specimens known to exist, the Library's copy was donated by Sir George Grey.