The Vatican Biblia Pauperum, or Paupers' Bible, was created in central Germany in the fifteenth century and is a late example of this type of manuscript. It features forty-two large miniatures of biblical stories and cosmology. Its rather large parchment leaves allow for the presentation of its structured illuminations in the center of each page with its bilingual Latin and German text written in columns of Gothic Quadrata above and below. The style is lively and emotive, the pen outlines filled in with washes of pastel colors.
Paupers' Bibles were not for the poor. Rather they were used by leaders of the church and state to educate the people about the story of the New Testament as prefigured by events in the Old Testament. These manuscripts were popular in northern Europe in the late medieval period, and this manuscript example is contemporary with some of the earliest printed versions. It is a charming and engaging book that has a timeless quality while being a lovely example of early modern German book craft.
The Bible in Pictures
A Paupers' Bible presents the stories of the New Testament primarily in images with biblical and exegetical text relegated to short passages or explanatory captions. Often a structured composition of Old Testament vignettes surrounds a central image of a theme or event from the New Testament. In this manuscript, most of the pictures are half-page size set in the middle of the page with text above and below. Within the image, five roundels show the event from the New Testament in the center with four characters offering explanations in Latin. These roundels are flanked by biblical vignettes. The illumination has a cheerful quality with lively line work and soft colors and there is an endearing quality in the various expressions and gestures.
A Bilingual Bible
The text of Paupers' Bibles was restricted to short captions or Bible verses and was usually in Latin. In this copy, a German translation is provided alongside the Latin, suggesting that the patron wanted a vernacular text in addition to the official version. The script is a compact Gothic Textualis of the Quadrata variety, and the sections in each language are introduced by enlarged initials alternating red and blue. Names are often written in red, and additional labels and captions appear in the images themselves, often written in the frames of roundels to explain the connections between the events and characters depicted.
A Germanic Tradition
The first Paupers' Bibles were created in Bavaria and Austria in the fourteenth century and included more than thirty didactic images relating events of the New Testament to prefiguration from the Old Testament. They remained popular in northern Europe, gaining up to fifty pictures in some later printed versions. This copy has thirty-eight biblical images and four additional full-page illuminations concerning cosmology, the Ages of Man, and the genealogy and sacrifice of Christ. The binding dates from the mid-seventeenth century. It is of green-dyed parchment with the papal coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII tooled in gold.