The Buch der Kunst is a didactic poem composed for laymen, likely directed to members of the court in Vienna. The text deals with the spiritual union of the human soul with God. As its original title – Büchlein von der geistlichen Gemahelschaft – indicates, the images of courtship and marriage are the central themes.
The text 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 the actual 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 (Chunradus de Wienna, d. 1380) 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. Textual sources and motifs are found in the works of the Franciscan Alexander of Hales, Hugo of Saint Victor, and the Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis.
While only one manuscript of the original poem survives (Vienna, Schottenstift, ms. 295), 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. The present edition can be regarded as the first, although there is a proof sheet preserved in Munich (BSB; ISTC ib01264900: “perhaps showing a discarded text version and setting for GW 5666. Type 3:119G.”). Bämler reprinted the book in 1478 and 1491; a further edition was published in 1497 by Johann Schönsperger with Bämler’s original woodblocks
The text is accompanied by an extensive cycle of woodcut illustrations that can be clearly attributed to three different hands. Schmid (1958) ascribes them to 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, as, for instance, the virgin seen from the back on a6 (Schramm III, 526) that is closely related to a figure from Rogier van der Weyden’s Columba altarpiece (Munich, Alte Pinakothek) and to the analogue representation in Stefan Lochner’s retable in the Cologne Cathedral.
A particular relish and emphasis seems 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. The scenes in the tents show, for instance, people excessively chaffering, gambling, drinking, vomiting, and fighting, while some protagonists fall into an abyss in the foreground. These transgressions are embodied by animals that are described in the text as wolves and foxes for compulsive dealing and as black pigs for gluttony. Surprisingly the animals have been switched in the woodcuts so that it can be assumed that the designers of the illustrations had not carefully read the text. Equally gruesome is the woodcut that deals with luxuria, the sin of lust. Here couples are tied together by horrid snakes that with their jagged spines looking like saws. Furthermore, there are numerous biblical subjects such as the life of Christ and Mary from the Annunciation to Pentecost as well as depictions of six sacraments, the last judgement, and five pictures relating to the book of Genesis.