The Speculum humanae salvationis, written in Latin around 1324, was composed as rhymed edifying prose recounting and illustrating the events of the Gospels and the lives of the Virgin and Christ in juxtaposition to corresponding prefigurations in the Old Testament. Written by a Dominican from the Strasbourg area, the Speculum fulfils one of the primary aspirations of that order, that of preaching to the people: each chapter was to serve as inspiration for a sermon. Furthermore, the book itself functions as a preacher bringing the story of the life of Christ to the illiterate by illustrating the text with large numbers of delicate woodcuts. As explained in the preface, the contents were meant to be heavily illustrated so as to appeal to a greater audience: “Hanc conditionem possunt litterati habere ex scripturis, rudes autem erudiri debent in libris, id est in picturis” (This the learned can take from the text, the illiterate from the pictures.)
Nearly 250 manuscripts have come down to us, in addition to blockbooks and incunable copies like the present one. The dissemination of the Speculum’s imagery in other media further attests to its great popularity: the stained glass of St. Stephan at Mühlhouse in Alsace (c. 1350) and the Speculum tapestry of the Wienhausen monastery (c. 1420) are prominent examples.
The first edition of the German Speculum was printed in Augsburg by Günther Zainer no later than 1473, containing the Latin text supplemented by a German translation. The second edition by Anton Sorg – dated to 9 August 1476 – appeared only a few weeks prior to the third and present Basel edition of 31 August. The latter contains a unique version of the text: the printer Bernhard Richel had interspersed the Gospels and Epistles, normally grouped in the appendix at the end of other manuscript and incunable versions, in between the various chapters of the Speculum.
Richel additionally went further to considerably increase the number of illustrations in his Speculum to create a pictorial cycle that remains a magnificent example of early woodcut printing in Basel. The cuts are graphically strong, expressive and focused on the essence of their subjects, in keeping with the traditions of 14th-century Upper-Rhenish and Alsatian art. It seems likely that an alternate source – perhaps a Speculum manuscript of Alsatian origin similar to Munich’s, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 146 – served as a model as opposed to Zainer’s earlier German edition. There are many iconographic parallels between our edition and that manuscript, which is illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings from the 14th century.
According to Pfister, three different draughtsmen were likely responsible for the design of the 278 woodcuts (from 255 blocks) in the present book. They are arranged in three consecutive groups; Master I: ff. 5-105v; Master II: ff. 105v-136v, and Master III: ff. 142-206. Their work here constitutes a major contribution to modern understanding of late medieval iconography and went on to significantly influence the illustration of other French and German incunables. Scholars believe the illustrations paved the way, for instance, for the highly acclaimed woodcuts of Peter Drach’s 1481 Speculum (printed in Speyer). Apparently the original woodblocks made for the Basel printing were not re-used for any later German edition, as Martin Huss – a printer in Lyon of Basel origin – had acquired the blocks and used them in his 1478 French translation of the Basel text, the Mirouer de la Rédemption. As Lyon’s first illustrated printed book, the forerunner of the tradition of all dated French printed illustration thus finds its origins in the present historic edition of Basel’s Spiegel menschlicher behaltnis (Pfister, p. 60).
Bernard Richel was among the first three printers in Basel. He had established his printing shop there by 1471, and in addition to printing he distributed books, selling at markets and on trips away from the city. The text of his Speculum edition is printed in his type 120 which also served as a model for the French and the Speyer editions. His richly illustrated Melusina and Mandeville’s Reisen editions became monuments in Basel printings alongside the Speculum.