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Found! Rare Renaissance Illustrations That Depict The End Of The World

Six years ago, a rare 16th-century illuminated manuscript showed up at auction. Now it’s been reproduced in full and published by Taschen.

In 2008, at the Munich auction house Ruef, a kind of miracle occurred: one of the world’s most glorious 16th-century illuminated manuscripts surfaced after sitting in obscurity in a German private collection for an unknown period of time. Its 169 pages were filled with lush gouache and watercolor paintings of fantastical phenomena: armored cupids, flying dragons, two-headed beasts, fire and brimstone, the pending Apocalypse. The Book of Miracles, it was called, and depicts events from the creation of the world as described in the Old Testament to the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation.

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Now, The Book of Miracles is available to the public. Or at least, a reproduction of the original. Published by art book powerhouse Taschen, with essays from art historians Joshua Waterman and Till-Holger Borchert, the book lives up to its title.

“The subject of natural disasters and their causes, a major theme of the manuscript, is just as pertinent today, in our age of climate catastrophe, as it was in mid-16th century Germany, even if our understanding is different,” Waterman, a German Renaissance art historian at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, tells Co.Design. “The natural disasters of the year 367 are a tour de force of the illuminator’s talents,” he says of one of his favorite images. “Flames pour from black clouds in the sky, a city topples in an earthquake, trees in the foreground bend and crack under thick sheets of rain and hail. It’s one of the most gripping images in the book.”

Oh, and in 1533, over 400 dragons were seen flying over Bohemia for several days, a vision beautifully documented here.

The complete provenance of this unprecedented discovery is still unknown. “Maybe a clarification will come if the present edition generates more interest in the manuscript and further research,” Waterman hopes. We do know from the manuscript’s watermarks that it was created in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg around 1550.

The illustrations in The Book of Miracles underscore a practice used by artists throughout history: the creative adaptation of visual prototypes. “While the book’s illuminators invented many of the images from scratch, they also based designs on prints by the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein,” Waterman says. “I think [contemporary] designers might agree that the effective combination of invention and adaptation is equally relevant now.”

Waterman suggests the illuminated manuscript was the CNN of its time: “I suppose a modern counterpart to The Book of Miracles could be the ubiquitous slide shows of recent natural disasters on all the news websites. After all, the manuscript was compiled in part from news reports that circulated in the form of illustrated broadsheets and pamphlets,” Waterman says.

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Proof that humans have always suspected that the end of the world is just around the corner. The Book of Miracles is available for $100 here.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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