Illuminated Incunabula

Most people are familiar with illumination, the beautiful colours and intricate elaborations of initials and margins in medieval manuscripts. But it is less common to come across illuminated printed books.

Illuminated initial from volume 1 of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra (Photo: Balliol College Library)

A four-volume incunabula set of the Bible with commentary, Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra, in Balliol Library is an example of this rarer illumination from the early days of the hand press.

This edition of the Vulgate Bible was published in Venice in 1481 by the master printer, Nicholas Jenson. The volumes were evidently owned by one Henry Clifford, though his signature appears to be 15th century.

clifford-signature
‘Henricus Clifford me possidet’: inscription on first leaf of volume 1 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

One assumes that to own this set of books so soon after the invention of printing Clifford would have been a wealthy man. One candidate might be Henry Clifford, tenth Baron Clifford (1454–1523), who, the Dictionary of National Biography  notes, was ‘…not just literate but even bookish, owning volumes on law and medicine, and developing a taste for astronomy and alchemy’. However the books themselves have no other marks of ownership.

The illuminations are a reminder how much the printed book borrowed from the manuscript. It was usual for print fonts to emulate handwriting. Here, this additional characteristic of the manuscript is borrowed.

There is one striking feature of the pattern of illuminations: many are incomplete, some hardly started. While some glitter lavishly others are no more than the rough drafts in black ink.

Clearly there is a story contained in this set that we will never be privy to. Why break off halfway through? Was this some sort of practice set that was never intended to be finished? The more complete illuminations seem to have had too much trouble taken over them for that. Did the illuminator who took on the job simply die before he could finish? But then why did the owner not go to someone else to finish the job? Or was it the owner himself who died, the gospels being laid to one side in the craftsman’s workshop and ultimately forgotten?

We will never know. The rather rough and ready plain paper-covered boards, a dull purple familiar in Oxford college libraries, suggests that their later history was not as grand as it once had been.

Cover and binding of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra Vol 4 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 595 c 1-4

By Jeremy Hinchliff