In the year 1520, in the middle of the turbulent times of Renaissance and Humanism, an ornate, yet highly intimate prayer book in the German language was produced in Augsburg. The town, then under the Fugger dynasty, was not only an important place of commerce and finance, but also one of the major centres of German book illumination.
The book was commissioned by Kasimir, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and his wife, Susanna of Bavaria, whose portraits and coats-of-arms both decorate the manuscript. Margravine Susanna was the niece of Emperor Maximilian, a generous patron of the arts throughout his life. He commissioned work from some of the greatest European painters, such as Dürer, Cranach and Holbein.
Fireworks of gold and colour
This extraordinary prayer book was presumably ordered on the occasion of the marriage celebrations for Kasimir and Susanna during the 1518 Imperial Diet at Augsburg where Emperor Maximilan himself gave away the bride.
Painted pages radiating with precious colours, opulent border decorations against a bright gold background and various ornamented initials in gold covering several lines against a red or blue background set ablaze a true firework display of gold and other colours on the 189 sheets of the book.
However, the manuscript does not capture the eye merely through the extravagant richness of design; rather, this effect is more so achieved by its very personal charm. Although made for a princess, the prayer book intrigues the reader by an abundance of endearing detail taken from the private living circumstances of Susanna; it could only have been carried out in this way upon her direct wish.
Susanna’s living world in her prayer book
The multi-faceted design of this prayer book reveals a princess for whom piety and joie de vivre were no contradiction. For instance, we find a full-page miniature dedicated to hunting, a pastime of the nobility, probably alluding to a scene during the wedding celebrations when a deer drowned in a moat after being chased by a pack of hounds.
Frolicking puttos appear as a symbol of unhindered joy of life reminiscent of a cheerful party at some feast. Adjacent to that we can see, loosely scattered on the border decorations, small birds, dogs, a cockatiel in a cage and members of the princely household, as for instance a dwarf feeding a tame raven.
Colourful pictures of the piety of the people
Yet it is also the selection of individual religious motifs and the phrasing of the prayers in the vernacular that hint at a strong personal influence exercised by Susanna.
This circumstance can be seen from the intense worship of local saints from the South German and Frankish areas and the invocations of the guardian angel and the Blessed Virgin.
Each prayer is first introduced by a full-page depiction of the respective saint. 28 of the 47 impressive miniatures here lead us through the life and passion of Christ.
Narziss Renner: an artist between tradition and modernity
It is most likely that Susanna commissioned the Augsburg artist Narziss Renner with illuminating her prayer book on the occasion of her wedding. Renner must have caught the taste of the princess exactly; otherwise, how would she have entrusted an 18-year-old illuminator with the production of her personal book of prayer?
Her choice becomes understandable in view of the richness in ideas of Renner. The creative potential of the young artist is additionally emphasised by the highly independent reception of painted and printed models.
The use of well-known models was then widespread, but only few achieved the quality of the old masters, let alone surpassed them. Some of the miniatures in the Margravine’s prayer book can without any doubt be traced back to works of Burgkmair and Cranach.
Furthermore, we can clearly see Renner´s great affinity with the works of the Regensburg wood sculptor Albrecht Altdorfer. Renner studied this master of the Danube School to such a degree that on occasions he even outdid him in his dramatic reproduction of nature.
Border decorations from all over Europe
One special charm of the manuscript lies in the simultaneous use of differing kinds of borders; a total of 214 picture and text pages are framed by Flemish, Italian or German-inspired borders. Among them, the most frequently used is the Flemish border of scattered flowers.
The radiant colours of the loosely distributed, colourful blossoms, fruits and small animals show up particularly well against the reflective golden background. Next to them are borders in the style of the Italian Renaissance with a repertoire of shapes borrowing from antiquity.
Cornucopias, atlanteans and grotesques stand out from the gold leaf by their black outlines. Finally, acanthus tendrils with golden pollen in the Augsburg Gothic style decorate several pages.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "German Prayer Book of the Margravine of Brandenburg": Deutsches Gebetbuch der Markgräfin von Brandenburg facsimile edition, published by Faksimile Verlag, 2002