Codex Gisle: written and illuminated by a woman

Just announced by Quaternio Verlag Luzern, the Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock is an amazing facsimile edition of an exceedingly rare manuscript illuminated by this nun from Rulle.

For this year Frankfurt Book Fair, Quaternio Verlag Luzern has prepared a surprise for all illuminated manuscript lovers, kinda like having your birthday coming early! And Facsimile Finder has managed, once again, to be ahead of the news and is proud to present a preview of this masterpiece: the Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock. 

What is so special about the Codex Gisle, you may ask? Why, the fact that it is written and illustrated by a woman in a men’s world of course! Finding works entirely, or even partially, made by women is extremely rare in the Middle Ages, and this is one of the finest examples, albeit a most obscure one. But we hope that the efforts of Quaternio Verlag will help in making this kind of manuscript widely known and appreciated.

Curious yet? Want some more information? Here we are, as usual!

In case you missed it: check out the beautiful gallery of the Codex Gisle and find out all the facsimile editions available on Facsimile Finder!

Gisela von Kerssenbrock: nun and choir-mistress in Marienbrunn

Gisela of Kerzenbroeck, or, as she is also known, Gisela von Kerssenbrock, was a nun in the Cistercian convent of Marienbrunn, located in Rulle, a little village in the lower Saxony, near Osnabrück. She was one of the very few women who dedicated their life to writing and illustrating manuscripts.

Her most famous work is the Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock, or Codex Gisle, written around the XIV Century. In an inscription, also dated XIV Century, can be read:

“The venerable and devout virgin Gisela von Kerssenbrock wrote, illuminated, notated, paginated and decorated in gold letters and beautiful images this extraordinary book in her own memory, in the year of the Lord 1300. May her soul rest in peace. Amen”

leaving no doubt on the identity of the artist.

Historiated initial from the Codex Gisle, by Gisela von Kerssenbrock
Historiated initial from the Codex Gisle, by Gisela von Kerssenbrock

The Codex Gisle contains 53 historiated initials, depicting the life of Christ, from the visit of Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin to his Ascension to Heaven. This great number of images, very literal in their quotation of the Liturgy, makes this book one of the most decorated manuscript of its genre.

Among the numerous images painted by Gisela, the ones depicting Christmas and Easter also portray kneeling nuns, one of whom has been identified as Gisela herself, thus giving us a portrait of the artist. The fact that she is leading the other nuns in their singing, led the experts to think that she was the choir-mistress.

The beautiful style can be called an elegant courtly Gothic, thanks to the finery of the work and the high quality of the miniatures: Gisela can truly be called one of the most gifted artists of the Middle Ages.

The high quality of the miniatures ranks her among the most gifted women artists of the Middle Ages. (Judith Oliver, in Singing with Angels)

The Codex Gisle was used in the celebration of the Mass, thus giving us a fair idea of the cycle of feasts, complete with readings and rituals, and of the everyday life in a Convent such as that of Marienbrunn, which consisted non only of private moments, as we are used to from testimonies of that times, but also of communal life.

Read more about Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock, facsimile edition

Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock, facsimile edition

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List of historiated initials in the Codex Gisle:

  • f. 1v (half page): Prophecy of the coming of the Lamb
  • f. 6r: The Visitation
  • f. 7v: The fiery furnace
  • f. 9v: Journey to Bethlehem
  • f. 10v: Virgin adores the Christ Child
  • f. 11v: Tree of Jesse & Annunciation to shepherds
  • f. 13v (half page): Nativity with angels
  • f. 15r: Jesus teaching in the Temple
  • f. 16r: Adoration of the Magi & Baptism of Christ
  • f. 56v: Entry into Jerusalem
  • f. 62r: The Crucifixion
  • f. 62v: Last Supper and Flagellation
  • f. 65r: Christ carrying the cross
  • f. 67r: Entombment
  • f. 68r: Angels singing and angel as priest
  • f. 68v: David playing the harp and angels singing
  • f. 69r: Ecclesia receives blood of Risen Christ
  • f. 70v (three-quarter page): Resurrection & Christ in Limbo
  • f. 71r: Christ as gardener & Mary Magdalene / Throne of Grace / Pelican / Phoenix
  • f. 71 v: Passover caricature / Lion awakens its cubs
  • f. 72r: Eagle and chicks / Christ leads the elect to paradise
  • f. 72v: Christ and pilgrims on the road to Emmaus
  • f. 73r: Christ appears to the apostles
  • f. 74r: Christ appears to the 2 Marys
  • f. 74v: 3 Marys at the tomb
  • f. 76r: Christ frees Joseph of Armiathea
  • f. 77r: Peter and John at the Tomb
  • f. 78r: Doubting Thomas
  • f. 79r: The risen Christ in the Garden
  • f. 79v: (Quarter page) Tree of life: Christ as lord of the world
  • f. 80r: Risen Christ in the tomb
  • f. 81r: Christ at the Sea of Galilee
  • f. 8 lv: Last Supper
  • f. 84r: (Quarter page) The Ascension
  • f. 86v: (One-third page) Pentecost
  • f. 89v: Throne of Grace
  • f. 103r: Andrew prays at the cross
  • f. 108r: St. John Ev. with chalice
  • f. 121r: Annunciation
  • f. 129v: John Bapt. with Agnus Dei
  • f. 133r: Mary Magdalene
  • f. 137v: (Quarter page) Death and Coronation of the Virgin
  • f. 143r: Sermon on the Mount
  • f. 145v: Jacob’s Ladder

Selected bibliography for the Codex Gisle:

  • Frings, Jutta, and Jan Gerchow. Krone und Schleier: Kunst aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern. Exhibition catalogue, Bonn and Essen, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, und Ruhrlandmuseum Essen, 2005. Munich: Hirmer, 2005, 420-21, cat. 326.
  • Oliver, Judith, “Worship and the Word: Some Gothic ‘Nonnenbticher’ in their Devotional Context.” In Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, edited by Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor, 106-122. London: The British Library, 1997, here 108-114.
  • Oliver, Judith. Singing with Angels: Liturgy, Music, and Art in the Gradual of Gisela von Kerssenbrock. Tumhout: Brepols, 2007.

Information courtesy of Repertorium of Manuscripts Illuminated by Women in Religious Communities of the Middle Ages.