For much of the 20th century, accessing images was a core challenge for research in art history. Because of printing costs, scholarly publications normally contained few illustrations, and there were therefore few published examples for art historians to work with. Recently, however, this has started to change: museums and libraries are making more and more of their collections available digitally.

Unfortunately, there is a difference between images that are online, and images that can easily be found online. For an image to be findable it needs to have a description attached to it. An image of Pentecost which is just filed away with a number will be invisible to scholars who are researching the depiction of Pentecost. This is unfortunately the case with most libraries, since they tend not to catalogue individual manuscript and book illustrations, meaning that one can only find them if one already knows of their existence. Thus, many costly digitisation programmes fail to reach their full potential.


Acts of the Apostles. Darmstadt, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek, Hs 2505, fols. 64v-65r (Cologne or Westphalia, c1360),
Photo: ULB Darmstadt (Public Domain)


A recently completed pilot project at the Warburg Institute addresses this problem. It focusses on the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a medieval handbook of typology, that is, of parallels between the Old and the New Testaments. The opening shown above, dedicated to Pentecost, shows how this tract works:

We see at top left the New Testament scene (antitype), the Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4), and next to it three Old Testament models (types). The text on the following page explains their significance.

Type 1 (bottom left): The builders of the Tower of Babel suddenly could no longer understand each other (Genesis 11: 6-9), but at Pentecost everyone understood the preaching Apostles.

Type 2 (top right): Just as the Israelites received the Law of Moses 50 days after the Exodus (Leviticus 23: 16), so the Christians received the Spirit 50 days after Christ’s Resurrection.

Type 3 (bottom right): Just as the oil-jar of the widow never ran out (2 Kings 4: 1-7), so the grace of the Holy Spirit will always continue within the Church.

The Speculum was one of the most popular picture-books of the late middle ages. There are some 150 surviving illuminated manuscripts made between the early 14th and the late 15th centuries, from many countries of Western and Central Europe. They are different in layout, technique and quality, as the images below show. The tradition continued for a time in print; there are over 20 incunabula editions. Since a full copy contains 192 miniatures, this forms one of the richest collections of late medieval Bible illustration.

Tower of Babel

[ill. 2]

Tower of Babel. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 6275, fol. 35v (Master of Edward IV, c.1485)
Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Public Domain)


[ill. 3]

Tower of Babel. Lilienfeld, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 114, fol. 53r (Austrian, c.1380)
Photo: (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Until a few years ago, only five manuscripts of the Speculum had been published in their entirety. When Dr Evelyn Silber, who studied the Speculum for her PhD, made a generous donation to the Warburg of photographs she had collected during her doctoral research, they were digitised and added to the Iconographic Database. Dr Berthold Kress, who was carrying out this work, then devised and executed a larger project. He added further Speculum manuscripts that had been digitised in sufficient quality by libraries worldwide. Thus, nearly 13,000 images, including all the incunabula illustrations and some 50 complete manuscripts, have been made accessible.

It is now possible to display all the images from one manuscript, or all the illustrations of a certain scene in the Speculum, to trace the typological relationships, and to compare them with images in other contexts that illustrate the same event. Images imported from library digitisation projects contain a link to the high-resolution photograph of the image on the external library’s website.

In future other illustrated texts (for instance Apocalypses) should be presented in a similar way. Furthermore, the new software for the database that is currently being developed will allow us to share our iconographic data with the libraries housing the manuscripts, so that the Warburg Institute can truly become a global partner in making digital images accessible.

Speculum page:

Speculum introduction:

– Submitted by Berthold Kress

Berthold Kress is an Associate Fellow who joined the Warburg Institute in 2011, and most of his work has been connected to the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database. Recently, he developed the following two projects: Speculum Humanae Salvationis and Bavarian Church Interiors.

%d bloggers like this: