In Portraying History of the World, Liber Chronicarum Made Printing History

The Liber Chronicarum (or Nuremberg Chronicle or Die Schedelsche Weltchronik, as it is also known) is an astonishing book that traces the history of the world from Creation to the eventual Last Judgment. Published July 12, 1493, in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger, the Liber Chronicarum is also one of the earliest printed books to combine text and illustrations successfully. The workshop of artist Michael Wolmegut, with whom Albrecht Dürer had apprenticed (Dürer was also Koberger’s godson), provided over 1,000 woodcut illustrations for the volume, including a double-page illustration of Nuremberg, and a double-page map of the world.

The illustrations included in the Liber Chronicarum are not simply beautiful in themselves (though they certainly are that); they also provide unique insight into the history of printing, and into medieval conceptions of history and historical figures. The earliest examples of illustrated printed books utilize the format and style of illuminated manuscripts, their immediate predecessors. Printed book illustration had not yet come into its own, and its possibilities had not yet been explored.

With the Liber Chronicarum, however, new relationships between print and picture begin to form. Print often outlines illustration, conforming to the latter’s shape; illustration is sometimes boxed off, under the text, above the text, or in the middle of the text; text can be single-column or double-column, and can appear on one side of the page, then on the other, and then back to the other. In other words, experimentation with various printing techniques is evident.

In addition to moveable text, moveable woodblock illustration allowed for exciting new possibilities. Printers could now use a single image in multiple parts of a book. In the Liber Chronicarum, for example, an illustration of a man dressed in medieval garb could be used to represent a Hebrew prophet in one section, Socrates in a different section, and a contemporary German in another. But this “trick” says less about the convenience of reusing moveable woodcut blocks than about the medieval relation to history. At this time, the European Renaissance and its return to the classical culture of Europe’s past were years away. Thus, depicting Socrates in medieval dress was not a stylistic choice: it was, essentially, the only choice, because the toga-wearing caricature of Socrates did not yet exist.

Overall, the Liber Chronicarum is a fascinating book, and a captivating portal to the past. We are proud to celebrate the initial publication date of the Latin edition of the text, which was a momentous event in the history of printing. The Newberry also houses copies of later editions, as well as pirate editions of the text, which were printed in both Latin and German. If you are interested in studying the Liber Chronicarum further, then the Newberry is a wonderful place to do so.

This essay was written by Sam Kepp, communications intern at the Newberry Library.