The Speculum Humanae Salvationis

An introduction

By Berthold Kress


The Speculum Humanae Salvationis emerged in early 14th-century Italy and soon spread to Germany and later to other countries of Northern Europe, from England to Hungary. Today, more than 190 illuminated manuscripts (some of them fragments) survive, alongside even more manuscripts without images, and more than 20 incunabula editions. These numbers make the Speculum one of the most popular works of the late Middle Ages. Since a complete manuscript contains 192 images (distributed over 45 chapters), it is also one of the richest repertories for Biblical imagery of the 14th and 15th centuries, and compositions popularised through the Speculum can be found in many media. 

The connection between the Warburg Institute and the Speculum goes back to 1927, when Edgar Breitenbach, who worked in Aby Warburg’s Kulturwissenschaftlicher Bibliothek in Hamburg, submitted his PhD on the development of different redactions of Speculum images, supervised by Erwin Panofsky. In 2016, Evelyn Silber, whose PhD had examined the earliest copies of the Speculum, generously donated her photographs and working materials on this text to the Warburg Institute. This provided the opportunity to add to the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database over 12,000 images from the Speculum, which came from four sources: 

  • The images donated by Evelyn Silber
  • Images kindly donated by James Marrow (Princeton)
  • Images from out-of-copyright books in the Warburg Institute Library
  • Images from Speculum manuscripts digitised by libraries worldwide

As of early 2018, the database contains complete sets of illustrations of about 50 manuscripts and 10 manuscript fragments as well as incomplete sets of over 25 manuscripts, and furthermore all woodcuts used in printed editions. This documents about one third of the extant illustrations of the Speculum, and it contains examples from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, England, the Netherlands and France from the early 14th to the end of the 15th century, from masterpieces to rough outline drawings. 

The cataloguing was undertaken by Berthold Kress (The Warburg Institute), with support from Emma Dove, volunteer at the Institute. Apart from providing one of the richest online repertoires for late medieval biblical imagery, it is also destined to show the benefits of cataloguing digitised library holdings for future research.

The images in the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database are complimented by a short introduction into the Speculum and a summary of its texts (both by Berthold Kress). A new comprehensive catalogue of Speculum Manuscripts by Andrea Schier, University of Erlangen, who is preparing a PhD on the illustrations of this tract, will be added in due course. 

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