Keywords: Incunabula


Medieval University


The Incunabula period of history refers to the first fifty years of printing books from moveable type. This generally starts with Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line bible printed in Mainz, Germany around 1455. Printing in this manner, from foundry or lead type, rapidly spread to other major commerce centers of Europe within this 50 year period. Some historians regard the Incunabula as belonging to the height of the Late Medieval period, while others mark it as the initial stages of the Renaissance. The books produced in this period largely followed the same look long established by the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Medieval period. Printers in the Incunabula mostly copied the layout and illustration conventions by using Illuminated Manuscripts as Exemplars to guide their page designs, and layout ideas. Significant are the facts that the Incunabula refers only to the early printing of books and begins in Mainz, not in Florence.


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In 1493, the second of the two great masterpieces of the Incunabula was printed. (the first being Gutenberg’s 42-line bible) It was called the Nuremberg or Book of Chronicles (Latin academics refer to it as Liber Chronicarum). It is an illustrated world history structured to follow the story of world history to that date (as recorded within the first 6 “ages” of the book) but also an outlook on the end of the world written from a religious perspective (Last Judgement). It also includes the histories of a number of important Western cities.

The Chronicle was produced by the printing firm of Anton Koberger. Based largely on the printing skill of Koberger, Nuremberg became the printing center of the world at the turn of the century. His print shop employed hundreds working on 24 presses producing bibles, psalters and other books. In 2011, some 700 copies of the Chronicle still existed (around 400 in Latin, and 300 in German).

Back in the 15th C, many copies were hand-colored after printing. Specialist shops were set up throughout southern Germany to color the Chronicle. Koberger was godfather to Albrecht Dürer. Dürer was also apprenticed for 4 years to Michael Wolgumut, the head illustrator on the Chronicle, beginning in 1486. It is therefore very likely that the young Dürer assisted him in the layout and illustration of the Nuremberg Chronicles.


In our modern ideology, we take it as natural the sense of ourselves as unique, autonomous individuals. We have a belief in our unique personal identity.  Traditional Art History has assumed the emphasis on artistic individuality beginning in the Renaissance as the “natural” emergence of the self, recent critical theory has emphasized that the conception of the self is in actuality a construction with a specific social history. We consciously or unconsciously fashion our identities out of the alternatives our cultural contexts provide.

While Dürer was not the first artist to produce a self-portrait, he can be arguably claimed to be the first artist that returned to this subject matter throughout his career. In these images Dürer constructs or, “fashions” his identity as an artist. Joseph Koerner, in his book entitled The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, has written: 

 A glance at the artist’s earlier likenesses… complicates our ideas about the unity and function of the self in self-portraiture at 1500. Viewed in succession, these works chronicle not so much one person’s physical and artistic maturation as a sequence of roles enacted by the artist for a variety of occasions.


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