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This exceptional copy of the Theuerdank, a book magnificent by itself, is further enhanced by the outstanding illumination in intense colours and highlighted with gold and silver. The main protagonists are accentuated in prominent, intense hues and therefore easily recognisable. Theuerdank, the great knight and eponymous hero, is - when not in golden armour - marked in a dark violet.
The overall conception of the work is due to Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg himself, who controlled every aspect of contents, printing and decoration. While his private secretary Melchior Pfintzing (1481-1535) undertook the completion and general editing of the work, several artists were employed in its production. The design is ascribed to at least seven artists, among whom Hans Schäufelein, Hans Burgkmair and Leonhard Beck were the most prominent. Eventually, all drawings were sent to Jost de Negker, who supervised the cutting in woodblocks and accomplished many cuts himself. The 118 images in this work have been called the finest series of German Renaissance book illustration. The bulk of the cuts was executed in 1511-1515, but it took until 1517 to complete the book.
The Theuerdank (Noble Mind) is an epic poem that celebrates the exploits and heroic deeds of Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519), the man who has been called the 'last knight'. As in an allegorical medieval romance, Theuerdank overcomes numerous perils on his journey to claim his bride, Queen Ernreich ('Rich in Honour', duchess Mary of Burgundy, 1457-82). Mary certainly was 'a damsel in distress', as her father, Charles the Bold, had just perished in the Battle of Nancy (1477). In the book, Theuerdank's expedition is impeded by three vicious characters called Fürwittig ('Meddlesome'), Unfalo ('Accident'), and Neidelhard ('Envious'), who fear losing their positions and want him out of the way. In the end, of course, the true knight wins his bride and the adversaries are convicted. Indeed, the marriage took place in haste by proxy but soon after was celebrated with great ceremony in Ghent on the 19th of August 1477.
The book was intended to be a memorial for himself and his dynasty and not intended for sale, and when Maximilian died in 1519 his successor found 6 chests filled with untouched copies. Whereas about 40 exemplars of this first edition were printed on vellum, only a few of these have been coloured. Our book ranks among the finest of all.
Tragically, Maximilian had lost his beloved bride after only a few years of marriage due to a horse accident (1482). But she gave him two children - Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria. They became bibliophiles in their own right. But that is another story.
Read more about this book in our spotlight, Courtly Love and the Last Knight.