Das Leiden unsers Herren Jhesu Christi

um 1460


Das Leiden unsers Herren Jhesu Christi








A Fifteenth-Century German Evangelary

By Margaret Munsterberg


THE Library has recently acquired a German manuscript of the Passion intended for popular use rather than for a church or monastery. It is a finely preserved folio volume of 109 paper leaves, with more than three hundred illustrations and an impressive full-page picture. The book was written in the middle or latter half of the fifteenth century; the German script, two columns to a page, is in a strong, heavy hand, with rubrics at the heads of sections. Initial letters are painted red and green; a number enclose sketches of human faces. Words have occasionally been crossed out and rewritten; at the end of the narrative the scribe has replaced the “Amen” in black ink with one in red.

No compiler or scribe is named, but an epilogue of six leaves, addressed to a friend named Jos[eph], is signed by Johannes Braxatoris of Elwang[en], who may have been the illustrator. The expert arrangement of Gospel passages and the familiarity with Church Fathers and scholastics, as well as the translation from the Latin, suggest that the compiler received help from one of the monasteries of the city. This translation is forceful and simple. A noteworthy characteristic is the frequent use of Minne – a word associated with Minnelied (love song) rather than with the caritas of the Vulgate.

The narrative, which is based on all four Gospels, begins with the Sunday before Palm Sunday and ends with the Resurrection. It is interwoven with commentary and quotations. In his desire for systematic presentation, the compiler often resorted to enumeration. For example, there were four successive ways in which the enemies of Jesus plotted to kill him; for four reasons Christ defended Mary Magdalene's act of anointing him; fifteen “great things” took place in the house where the Last Supper was held; for seven reasons Christ bowed his head on the Cross. “Da ist ein fraug” (there is a question) introduces many a passage of ingenious exposition; and significant points are emphasized with the exhortation “Merck” (note!).

The passages beginning with “O” suggest the “seven Os” or “fifteen Os” of the sorrows of Mary in the Books of Hours. The portions pertaining to Mary are of special significance since, in contrast to the fairly canonical representation of the rest, they are legendary. In medieval Germany the popular Marian literature took the form of the so-called Marienklagen (Laments of Mary); and the “Unser Frauen Klage” (Our Lady's Lament) of the thirteenth century was especially popular. Besides the lyrical expressions, there were the narrative Marienleben (Lives of Mary), which had their sources in the apocryphal Gospels. Most important among the latter is the Protevangelium, or Gospel of James the Minor, designed especially for the glorification of Mary. Although not accepted by the Roman Church in ancient times, from the sixth century on this gospel was used in medieval homilies. That it was taken seriously at the time when the Library's volume was made appears from the statement (on f.15r.): “As we read in the book of the life of our Lord, which was written by St. James the Minor, whom Scripture calls a brother of Christ . . .”

The manuscript includes comments from more than forty authorities. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah are each quoted at least nine times, the Psalms five times, and there are references to Joshua, Solomon, Ezekiel, Job, and the historian Josephus. The most frequently consulted authority is St. Augustine, and a close second is St. Jerome. Next comes St. John Chrysostom. (The manuscript consistently spells his name Chrisostimus, ignoring the Greek root sto “mouth.”) Other saints frequenty quoted are St. Ambrose, Pope Gregory, and St. Bernard. Two great scholars of England are represented – the Venerable Bede and St. Anselm.


ONLY a brief survey and an occasional sampling of the text can be offered here, and unfortunately the persuasive simplicity of the German original cannot be preserved in translation. The first striking incident in the week before Palm Sunday is the awakening of Lazarus. It may be noted that the narrative follows the custom then prevalent in the Western church of fusing the three Marys – Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus drove out seven devils; the sinner who annointed his feet; and the sister of Lazarus. In all these roles she is called Mary Magdalene.

The harmony of the four Gospels is supported by related passages from Scripture. Thus after telling of the Samaritans' refusal to take Jesus into their city, and quoting the parable about the foxes having their holes and the birds their nests and the Son of Man no place to lay his head, the narrator paraphrases the opening chapter of St. John: “So He is come into his own – that is, the present world which is his.” After the relation of the miracle of sight restored to the two blind men, a hymn of three stanzas occurs, beginning


O savior of the world, naked and bare

How is thy faith and love so great . . .


In the course of a meditation on the four kinds of weeping one comes upon the first of the Marian passages that suggest an apocryphal source. David and Jonathan weeping are understood as symbols; “David is Christ and Jonathan is his poor mother Mary, who was of the lineage of Judah.” Remembering the words of Simeon that a sword would pass through her soul, Mary says: “My son, thou knowest that I have never committed any sin . . . so grant my prayer by thy mildness and let me die before thee.” Christ answers: “There is one reason for which I must not answer thy prayer. It would be improper if thou shouldst depart from this world so that I could not be in heaven when thou comest and go to meet thee with the whole heavenly choir and receive thee worthily.” Among the reasons given for Christ's defence of the act of Mary Magdalene is one that harmonizes with the tone of the manuscript: “He also wanted to be anointed by the hands of a woman and not of a man.” In connection with Jesus's escape from his persecutors, the writer tells a legend about a stone “which is called the leap of our Lord, as on it there appears his foot-print. The stone split open and hid Christ from the princes of the Jews.”

The account of preparations for the Last Supper follows Mark and Luke, but there are additional details, for, besides the paschal lamb, the disciples are to provide “wild lettuce and unleavened bread, and for each a staff in his hand.” Even at this climax of the Christian year, the narrator seems to adopt the point of view of Mary: “O what a wretched parting when the mother had to leave her only son, who was to die such a bitter death, and when she could not obtain from him that she should eat the last supper with him in the flesh.” After explaining the symbolism of the foot-washing according to St. Augustine, the writer remarks: “So priests and monks still wash one another's feet.” Great significance is attached to the house in which the Last Supper was held; it was there that the Holy Ghost descended at Pentecost. The much disputed passage in Luke (XXII. 36-38) about buying a sword receives a symbolic, as well as a historical, explanation: “And therefore the two swords signify the two-fold power of Christianity – the first is the worldly or imperial sword; the second is the spiritual sword that the pope uses at Rome.”

In the second part the manuscript explains the overthrow of Jesus's persecutors. They fell backward, for, as St. Gregory said: “Falling backwards signifies that they fell sinfully, for good people fall forward on their faces.” The young man who fled, leaving his linen cloth, is identified with St. James the Minor and with St. John, according to Bede and to St. Jerome: “Also you should note the great poverty of the disciples of Christ, for this disciple had on nothing more than a shirt in this cold night.”

The narrator describes torments with grim realism: “St. Bernard says that from the points of the crown Jesus received a thousand wounds, for it covered his head all over and extended down to his shoulders.” And here is a rare reference to contemporary conditions: “As one can see in Paris, there the same crown is in the king's chapel; and as some say, it is carried annually on a beautiful mount round the city on the day after the day of the sacred cross in May.”

The manuscript elucidates every aspect of the hours of the cross. Here again rapturous sympathy with the Virgin breaks all canonical bounds. Embracing the cross, she begs to be crucified with her son. At last Christ gives his mother into the care of John, saying: “Woman, behold thy son.” St. Jerome is quoted as commiserating with her: “How unequal is this exchange that a poor fisherman's son was given thee for the son of God.”

The descent into hell is a joyous chapter. “See now, dear reader,” the writer exclaims, “how happy the holy Fathers are at the sight of Jesus our Lord, and all care and longing are gone.” They fall at his feet, and rise up and sing, and he leads them out of hell into paradise.


FIFTY-ONE of the illustrations are scenes from the text, fifty-six represent the Evangelists, and the rest are portraits. They are drawn in free, easy strokes, and brightly tinted with water-colors and gold crayon. The faces, though rather crudely daubed with red, are frequently expressive. There is a naive sincerity and spontaneity. The designs follow traditional patterns, and some of the motives may be seen in contemporary woodcuts. Such are the round table for the Last Supper and the crossing of lances over the head of Christ by the soldiers.

The first scene shows a small Lazarus wrapped in his shroud, his two sisters standing on one side and Jesus on the other. The next is the stoning of Christ, who stands in a doorway. The curing of the two blind men is especially effective. Both are kneeling on the green, flowered field; the suspense on the face of the one over whom Christ is holding three fingers is conveyed to a remarkable degree by means of simple lines. To the right are two disciples; to the left, gesticulating onlookers. A dainty little picture illustrates Mary Magdalene's anointing of Jesus's feet. The penitent with her long blonde hair is in the foreground, dipping her hand in a jar; Jesus sits at the left, and opposite him Judas holds up his hand disapprovingly, while two disciples and the host watch across the table. Lively small scenes show Christ overthrowing the table of the moneychangers, forgiving the woman taken in adultery, and discoursing on the tribute to Caesar. In the representation of the Last Supper the head of St. John rests on the breast of Jesus, and the disciples are all nimhed, except Judas.

The strange picture of Christ carrying the cross shows him bearing the upper part on his shoulder, while Simon of Cyrene, appearing almost like a dwarf, holds the lower end in a sling tied round his neck. The full-page picture of the crucifixion is a fine composition. The two thieves are tied to their crosses, one flanked by an angel, the other by a devil. At the foot of the cross Mary is kneeling, clasping her arms round its base. In the group below are St. John, one of the holy women, knights in medieval armor, and men with dice and swords. In the resurrection scene Christ is represented as standing, scarlet-robed, on the closed lid of the tomb.

The last picture, filling a half-page lengthwise, shows the prophet Ezekiel lying in a flowery meadow and gazing at a vision of the four Evangelists in their symbolic shapes. It belongs with the epilogue, which explains why the Evangelists were, with few exceptions, represented by their traditional symbols. Matthew is shown in human (or angelic) form because he recorded Christ's birth; Luke emphasized the sacrifice, which is symbolized by a calf or lamb; Mark proclaimed the reign of Christ, and is therefore a lion; and finally John, concerned with divinity and eternal wisdom, is symbolized by the highest flying creature, the eagle.

The more than two hundred portraits of the Church Fathers and other authorities offer a pleasing variety. St. Augustine always appears with the bishop's mitre and generally with the staff; he may be dressed in a red and green chasuble over the surplice or, like St. Bernard, in brown monastic garb. St. Ambrose and St. Chrysostom, too, appear in a bishop's garments. Pope Gregory wears the papal tiara. The most curious iconography is that of St. Jerome, who is always in the regalia of a cardinal, a custom followed since the thirteenth century. The accompanying lion is a symbol which links him with St. Mark. The non-canonized wise men like Bede, Rabanus, and Theophilus wear either a red turban or a cap. Bede is generally introduced with a scroll reading “Venerabilis Beda”; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other Old Testament figures have pointed caps, but David and Solomon wear crowns.

The manuscript is bound in the original boards, covered by brown calf with blind-tooled panels. It has the bookplate of James R. P. Lyell, the noted English collector.