The text of the present incunable describes messengers of the king (God) who court seven virgins. Eventually all but the seventh virgin prove to be fickle, and she is thus chosen as royal spouse. Her preparations for her divine marriage, in which she is assisted by ten virgins embodying the Christian virtues, cover the central portion of the treatise. The text refers to the dangers of the world, flesh, and devil at the beginning and again towards the end; a substantial part is dedicated to her marriage with God and the description of the otherworldly existence.
The text was first composed as a rhymed epic poem by the Austrian Franciscan Konrad Spitzer in the late 14th century (after 1365). He is documented as confessor at the court of Duke Albrecht III and was apparently a wealthy man and bibliophile. In the wake of the Benedictine Reformation Movement of Melk, a prose version of the poem was created between 1418 and 1430. According to the preface, a “doctor” translated the tract from Latin into German for Empress Leonore (1436-1467), wife of Emperor Frederick III.
While only one manuscript of the original poem survives, the prose treatise enjoyed great popularity throughout the 15th century. Five illustrated manuscripts are known, and in 1477 Johann Bämler had the Buch der Kunst editorially revised and printed for the first time. Bämler reprinted the book in 1478 and 1491; a further edition was published in 1497 by Johann Schönsperger with Bämler’s original woodblocks. The present edition can be regarded as the first. It is extraordinarily rare, since there is no other copy of the present edition on the market, only two copies of Bämler’s later editions.
The text is accompanied by an extensive cycle of woodcut illustrations that can be clearly attributed to three different hands, likely the Sorg Master, his Kreuzfahrt Meister, and a third hand. The best compositions in this work are extraordinarily well-balanced and of courtly elegance. Some of the characters seem to derive from Flemish models.
A particular relish and emphasis appears to lie in the depictions of sins and punishments, although in the beginning of the book there are several charming scenes of graceful women in conversation with the divine messengers, mostly accompanied and viciously influenced by small devils. Innovative compositions depict the Wheel of Fortune showing the Seven Vices in tents, followed by vivid independent images of each individual Vice.