Detail of one of the choir books of Lorch Monastery, early 16th century

Scenes from monastic lifeIlluminationin Lorch

The Lorch choir books, from 1511 and 1512, illustrate the splendor of monastic life and creations in Lorch at the beginning of the 16th century. The illustrations in the books, which enchant viewers with their vividness and rich colors, are especially beautiful.

Detail of the choir books

Some of the images are strange: a man with a hoopoe on his head.

Strange and magnificent illustrations

The Lorch choir books contain songs for mass, sorted chronologically by liturgical year. The illustrations of the books are spectacularly beautiful. All in all, there are 108 illustrated initials and border frames, marking the beginning of major church celebrations, such as Corpus Christi or Pentecost. 63 ornamental initials indicate the beginning of smaller church celebrations. The illustrations typically depict religious scenes, but also sometimes show scenes from the daily life of the monastery.

Detail of a page from the choir books

Margin with three of the abbots of Lorch.

The art of illumination

The choir books include pictures, such as a detailed image of a procession of the monks of Lorch. Readers will see many portraits and coats of arms, as well as important scenes, such as a farmer chasing bears away from his beehives. The ornamentation, margin illustrations, and images that take up whole pages are typical of illumination. This involves the decoration of initials, the ends of lines, the margins of pages, or entire pages. In the Middle Ages, artistic images were intended to make texts, which were generally written in Latin, easier to understand.

The illuminist Bertschi and his wife, depicted in one of the Lorch choir books

The illuminist Bertschi and his wife Margareta at work.

From the monastery to the workshop

For centuries, the art of illumination lay in the hands of monks. Yet by the early 16th centuries, professional workshops were founded in cities and had almost completely taken over illumination. Lorch Monastery commissioned the workshop of Nikolaus Bertschi (circa 1480–1541/42), an illuminist from Augsburg, with illuminating the choir books. At the time, Bertschi's workshop was known for specializing in illuminating liturgical manuscripts.

Illumination on site

It is thought that the Lorch choir books were illuminated on site, which is to say at Lorch Monastery. The motifs are evidence of this: scenes from the late medieval world of the monastery are repeatedly depicted. It therefore appears as though the artists accomplished their work there. The size of the Lorch commission and the relatively short period for its completion are an indication that Bertschi was assisted by several colleagues in accomplishing the illumination. However, the identity of these colleagues is not known.

Exterior of the monastery

The monastery itself seems to have been an important workplace.

The choir books are stored at the Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart (Württemberg State Library). Visitors can get a glimpse of the loveliest pages in the monastery church. Here, they can page through richly colored copies of the choir books and learn about their creation.

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