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Continuing the theme of our previous blog post, Dr Ben Pope of the University of Tübingen writes about his recent discovery that German MS 2 is from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger. We are delighted that Ben will be returning to Manchester as Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute later this year.

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Arms of Bianca Maria Sforza, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 1.

I was initially surprised to find that such a visually splendid manuscript as John Rylands Library German MS 2 had not yet attracted the attention of researchers in any field. Admittedly, there was at first glance little evidence of its origins: simply the date 1565 and the initials ‘P.T.’ stamped on the rear cover. A later owner had mistakenly titled the codex ‘Deutsches Stammbuch’, or ‘Book of German Genealogies’, when it is in fact an armorial, or collection of coats of arms of German noble lineages. Closer inspection of the contents showed clear links to the fifteenth-century tradition of armorial production in the region which now comprises southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and to the Austrian Habsburg dynasty in particular. Yet physical and stylistic aspects of the manuscript pointed elsewhere: to the central German region of Saxony in the middle of the sixteenth century. Fortunately I was able to track down further sources which enabled me to solve this riddle, and to publish findings in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library which I summarize here.

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Arms of the elector of Saxony, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 101.

In 1565 Elector August of Saxony (1526–86) commissioned the renowned Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86) to produce a copy of an ‘old armorial’ which Cranach had inherited from his father, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). This armorial was almost certainly being used in the Cranachs’ workshop in Wittenberg as reference material in the production of other artworks. August was initially interested in an unspecified matter of Saxon heraldry, but he requested a ‘true copy’ of the complete armorial, plus any further coats of arms known to Cranach. In several letters to Cranach (preserved in the Saxon state archives in Dresden) August gave detailed instructions for the making of this copy, which enable us to identify Rylands German 2 as this armorial.

From the initials ‘P.T.’ we also know that the rolled, stamped and gilded white leather of the covers was created by the bookbinder Paul Thiele, who was working in Wittenberg between the 1550s and 1575. Internally, the structure, layout and labelling of the heraldic material correspond exactly with August’s instructions, and the main depiction of the Saxon electoral arms is especially lavish. A section which commences with this coat of arms was sent to August before the rest of the copy was complete, and the break in the copying process that this caused is still visible in the manuscript’s physical structure. Furthermore, we can identify at least some of the coats of arms which were added by the Cranach workshop and which are related to woodcuts and other heraldic artwork produced by both Cranachs.

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Front cover of German MS 2, by the bookbinder Paul Thiele (fl. 1550s-1575).

The bulk of the manuscript’s content is clearly older than these additions, however. The coats of arms of identifiable individuals in Rylands German 2 refer to people who were all living only in 1499 or 1500. The armorial is also clearly related to multiple other armorials produced in fifteenth-century Upper Germany (present-day southern Germany, Alsace, Switzerland and Austria). In accordance with this tradition, Rylands German 2 has an introductory section featuring numerous coats of arms which represent historic figures, people said to exemplify particular virtues, and an idealized social and political structure of the Holy Roman Empire, which was in reality a complex and highly decentralized polity in which hierarchies of authority were far less clearly defined than in modern states.

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Arms of the four churches and four pillars of the Empire: Trier, Masovia, Cologne and Bremen, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 40.

The Empire is presented in the main body of the armorial as a series of regional communities of nobles led by powerful princes, but also featuring associations or societies of lower nobles such as the ‘Society of the Ibex’. These associations were common in late medieval Upper Germany, but Rylands German 2 is only the fourth armorial featuring these societies to have been identified. The societies are not, however, always portrayed quite so prominently in Rylands German 2 as in the other armorials in which they feature. The artist(s) responsible for the ‘old armorial’ seem to have decided to downplay the importance of these societies, and thus the autonomy of the lower nobility which the societies sought to uphold, in favour of the power of certain princes. August of Saxony read the armorial as a series of principalities with their ‘incorporated’ nobilities, but in fact the relationship between the princes and lower nobles in Rylands German 2 is often ambiguous.

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Insignia of the Society of the Ibex, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 259.

We can begin to understand why the nobility of the Empire is presented in this way by considering the context of the original armorial’s production. The Habsburg imperial dynasty is naturally prominent in many German armorials of this period, but Rylands German 2 displays a special connection to the house of Austria through features including a proverb closely associated with Emperor Frederick III (1415–93) and a picture of the imperial herald Romreich, which could indicate that Bernhard Sittich, who held the office of Romreich herald in 1499/1500, was responsible for compiling the original armorial. Frederick’s son Maximilian (1459–1519) is also represented, but the real focal point of the armorial is Maximilian’s second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan.

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The herald Romreich, whose tabard bears the arms of King Maximilian, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 77.

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Arms of Emperor Frederick III, University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 21.

Bianca Maria’s arms fill the first page of the Cranach copy, and there is good reason to think that she was at the heart of the original armorial too, as her arms are followed by those of thirty-nine princely ladies of the Empire. This unusual collection of women’s arms depicts individuals living in 1499/1500 and is thus both an integral part of the original material and a clear statement of Bianca Maria’s status as the highest ranking woman in the Empire. This section’s presentation in Rylands German 2 suggests that Bianca Maria is the head of a separate ‘province’, a parallel Empire of women.

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Arms of princely ladies of the Holy Roman Empire (the first of four pages), University of Manchester Library, German MS 2, p. 2.

Rylands German 2 thus offers insights into a sixteenth-century prince’s heraldic interests and artistic patronage; an artist’s use of heraldic materials in his workshop; the south German armorial tradition of the fifteenth century; and the heraldic and artistic programme of the Habsburg court in the reign of Maximilian. It depicts an Empire of regions dominated by certain princes: some of these regions can be understood as the ‘territory’ of the prince at their head, but others are regional communities connected through the princes to the imperial centre. At this centre we find, surprisingly, not Maximilian, but his often overlooked second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. This gives cause to reappraise not only her queenship, but also the wider relationship between women and heraldry in the later Middle Ages.

Dr Pope’s extensive and richly illustrated article is available to read for free for one week (18-24 February 2019). The manuscript has also been fully digitised and can be viewed online (at any time) here.