16th Century German Manuscript Research

I’m working on the custom award scroll for a court barony that was given in November 2013. I’ve had the commission for about a year, but it had to wait on my wrist to heal. I’ve spent a lot of time doing research to pick the right hand, design elements, and really get a feel for late 16th century German manuscripts.  The recipient is Very German, and he is a clever man who enjoys deep research, so I wanted to be certain that whatever I did was correct.

What’s happening in the 1590’s? The printing press had been around for about 150 years, and much of the hand-painted illustration that makes manuscripts so beautiful had been set aside for more economical woodcut prints. Sometimes these are painted with a wash of watercolor, but the quality is nothing like what you see in previous centuries. The good illustrations have taken full advantage of the Renaissance’s advancements in painting more realistic figures, textures, and perspectives. I’m not a good enough painter to pull that off, let alone in miniature. Seriously, go check out the Mira Calligraphiae.

Dig through a bunch of German manuscripts, and you’re going to see a focus on elaborate knot-work initials done in pen and ink, called cadels. This is from the French cadeaux, meaning “gift”. They’re much larger than the text, and there are tons of examples where the page orientation is landscape to give room for the initial to be in line with the text. The calligraphy has also gotten more elaborate and decorative. I think with printed books being readily available, pressure was off for scribes to make their writing ultra legible. There’s more freedom to put beauty before readability, which is fun for modern calligraphers.

Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300
Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300

These sometimes have fine pen and ink figures in them, and in a couple of royal cases, have illuminated gouache portraits of the king inside the letter. Here’s one from one of Henry VIII’s legal documents, 1529.

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I prefer calligraphy over painting, so I’m already excited about working with pens over brushes. The cadels are stunning and offer a chance to draw in little scenes or items of personal significance to the recipient, and I have one with some diverse and passionate interests. Done. I spent months trying to draw my own, but they’re really hard to do at first. I decided to modify an existing one so that I wasn’t fighting knotwork and proportions and trying to fit little people in there.

I came up with this as my draft. It’s already changed some to replace the grotesque at the top of the S with a mask and add in little extras. The little rapier guys will definitely need some practice sketches and a more specific wardrobe. The one on the left needs more aggression! He’s a bit nonchalant about his life being at stake…

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I sized it down a couple of times on my copier so that I could see which one works best with the amount of text I have and the overall size of the finished piece (11x14in). There will be more knotwork across the top, plus vinework between the rows of text, like this:

Calligraphy Letterform Album 'Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen' (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.
Calligraphy Letterform Album ‘Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen’ (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.