One letter of a Latin text on a page of sixteenth-century parchment captivated my attention for three hours. I consulted dictionaries to determine potential Latin words that might shed light on the myriad possibilities for this letterform. I used magnifying glasses to zoom in on the letter to find any hidden clues; shapes that might lead me in a better direction. It took fully three hours for me to realize that this letter was an uppercase Z.
One of the hardest—and most rewarding—aspects of transcribing and translating handwritten medieval Latin texts is not the actual translating: it’s deciphering the individual letters written down by scribes. U’s meld into i’s, which meld into m’s, which meld into n’s, and sometimes, as in the case of the elusive Z, it’s hard to figure out what is actually going on. Entire letters or syllables could be abbreviated with scribal shorthand, chopping off half a word. Often abbreviated words pin the sentence together, and sometimes that word is nearly impossible to read. Intense focus, common sense, and patience are needed. Yet, when the name Zachariah appears as a result of figuring out the Z, you know that determination has paid off.
The exhibition Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts, on view at the Getty Center December 18, 2018–April 7, 2019, features exceptional examples of calligraphic arts produced across the Mediterranean world from about 800 to 1600. In anticipation of this exhibition, the Manuscripts Department gave me the opportunity (and challenge) to translate sections of the remarkable Model Book of Calligraphy (Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta), one of the greatest examples of calligraphic art in European history.
About Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta
The book was made by Georg Bocksay around 1562 as a commission for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, and nearly thirty years later, Joris Hoefnagel gorgeously illuminated the pages. Bocksay penned the calligraphic samples to display just how many styles he had mastered, and perhaps more importantly, to prove that his art was not becoming obsolete as a result of printing. As an extra flourish, he wrote samples in a few different languages, including Latin. That’s where I came in. I transcribed and translated two different folios (pages), 89 and 118, which are included in the Artful Words exhibition. (Folio 118 is on view from December 18 to February 10; then the book’s pages are turned to show folio 89 through the close of the exhibition on April 7.)
Each page depicts several different types of handwriting, and each text section draws mainly from a Christian source, including the Bible, segments from the book of hours (known as the “medieval bestseller”), or other common prayers. Bocksay not only displays impressive handwriting techniques on both pages, but also places his text in striking geometric patterns. Psalm 117 sits in a diamond in folio 89; a complicated symmetrical maze and a tiny circular pattern comprise folio 118, equipped with Canticles, Psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Working with Medieval Manuscripts
I was tasked with transcribing the Latin prayers on folios 89 and 118 and translating them into English. Though some prayers in medieval manuscripts are common, such as the Lord’s Prayer that appears in folio 118, often texts had minor variations in spelling, or word changes from standardized versions of the material. Using a magnifying glass (or a high-resolution digital image), I copied down Bocksay’s Latin, researched passages to find their source, hunted through books of abbreviations, and came out with a working translation of the text.
Throughout the summer, I also gained exposure to the amazing world of the Middle Ages in a hands-on way, by studying other manuscripts in the Museum’s collection. Flourishing trade routes lay before my eyes, in blues from minerals found only in Afghanistan, or spelling variations unique to France in prayer books made in England for a French market. Among the glitter of gold and sheer beauty of these texts lay political intrigue, feuds, alliances…the great stuff of history. The Middle Ages produced some of the most fascinating works of art and literature I’ve ever studied. My amazing colleagues, all equipped with PhDs and extensive knowledge of art history, languages, and premodern societies, helped me understand this history in all its complexity and glory. By the end of the summer I was hooked on the Middle Ages.
Translating and transcribing Latin in the Manuscripts Department at the Getty Museum was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had so much fun learning about a culture I knew very little about and working with beautiful and marvelous texts. The Department is incredible, with myriad talent and wonderful people, and I came out of the summer filled with joy at how much I had learned.
And, the best part, I found the Z.
Read Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, Folio 89
Box at Top of Page
Almighty everlasting God, in whose hand are all the powers, and governance of every realm, look to the help of Christians, as the land which your only-born, our master Jesus Christ, consecrated with his very own blood: may you retrieve crosses from the hands of our enemies; and return them to the Christian faith, with your saints: may your name be served, and may the tribes of all pagans, which rely on their own wildness, be crushed by the might of your right hand, through our master Jesus Christ. Etc. In the year of our Lord 1000
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, in cuius manu sunt omnium postestates, et omnium iura Regnorum respice in auxilium hominum Christianorum, ut terram quam unigenitus tuus, dominus noster Iesus Christus proprio sanguine consecravit: de manibus inimicorum cruces eripi facias: ac eam in christiana religione, tuo sanctis: nomini concedas servire, et gentes omnium Paganorum,que in sua feritate confidunt, tu(a)e dextera potentia conterantur, Per dominum nostrum Iesum Christum. Et c. Anno domino millesimo centum.
Bocskay in the Holy Roman Empire in May in Aulicus, Vienna, wrote this in 1562 AD.
Bochkai Sacram Romam Iperatorem Maie: Aulicus Viennae Scripsit Anno Domini MDLXII
Diamond at Center of Page
Confess to the Lord for he is good; for his mercy endures forever. Let Israel now say that he is good, that his mercy endures forever. Let the house of Aaron now say that his mercy endures forever. Let they who fear the Lord (the master) say that his mercy endures forever. In my trouble I called upon the Lord, and the Lord heard me, and made me larger than I am. The Lord is my helper, and I will look down over my enemies. The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man may do unto me. It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in man. It is good to hope in the Lord, rather than to hope in man or in princes. All tribes encircled [about me], and in the name of the Lord, I have been avenged of them. Surrounding me, they encompassed me about; and in the name of the Lord, I have been avenged of them. They surrounded me like bees, and they glowed like fire on a thorn bush: and in the name of the God, I have been avenged of them. Being pushed I was turned to a corpse and yet the Lord supported me. The Lord is my strength and praise; and he has become my salvation. The voice of joy and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the just. The right hand of the Lord made virtue. The right hand of the Lord raised me up. The right hand of the Lord made virtue. I will not die, but live; and will declare the works of the Lord.(1)
In 1562 AD
Confitemini domino quoniam bonus; quoniam in seculum misericordia eius. Dicat nunc Israel, quoniam bonus quoniam in seculum misericordia eius. Dicat nunc domus Aaron quonia(m) in seculum misericordia eius. Dicant nunc omnes qui timent dominum, quoniam in seculum misericordia eius. De tribulatione invocavi dominu(m) et exaudivit, me in latitudine dominus. Dominus mihi Adiutor, et ego despiciam inimicos meos. Dominus mihi adiutor, non timebo quid faciat michi homo. Bonum est confidere, in domino, quam confidere in homine. Bonum est sperare in domino, quam sperare in homine vel principibus. Omnes gentes circuierunt et in nomine domini quia ultus sum in eos. Circundantes circundederunt me et in nomine domini, quia ultus sum in eos. Circundederunt me sicut apes, et exarserunt sicut ignis in spinis: et in nomine domini, quia ultus sum in eos. Inpulsus eversus sum ut cadarem et dominus suscepit me. Fortitudo mea et laus mea dominus: et factus Est mihi in salutem. Vox exultationis et salutis intabernaculis iustorum. Dextera domini fecit virtutem. Dextera domini exaltavit me. Dextera domini fecit virtutem. Non moriar sed veniam et vivam narrabo opera.
Paragraph and Gold Lettering at Bottom of Page
Your Passion, Lord Jesus, was made bitter and is the extremist, greatest, most certain refuge, finally a singular remedy, which wisdom fails, justice does not suffice, those things that merit safety have been buried or flee for help: however, although my virtue failed, nevertheless I will never be put out of order, and I will never succumb to desperation but I will accept the cup, which he gave, by the name Georgius Boshkai.
Passio tua amara domine lesu, ultimum maximum certissimumque est refugium, singulare denique remedium, deficiente sapientia, iustitia non sufficiente, sanctitatis succumbetibus meritis illa succurrit: quum tamen defecerit uirtus mea, nihilominus nunquam conturbabor, nec aliquando in desperationem incidam, sed calicem, quem dedit, accipiam, et nomine GEORGIUS BOSCHKAI
Read Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, Folio 118
Maze at Top of Page
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us. He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning and now and always, for ages and ages. Amen.(2)
And Zachariah, his father, was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, following the spirit:(3)
Eternal glory of the heavens, O blessed hope of mortals, the only son of the high thunderer, offspring of the Virgin’s chastity. Lend us your hand as we rise up, let our minds rise soberly, and as they burn in praise of God, giving him due thanks. The morning star, rising, shines brightly, proclaiming the coming of the light; the darkness of night falls away. May holy light shine upon us. As it resides in our minds, let it repel all darkness in the world, and at the end of every day preserve our cleansed hearts. Let faith, first sought, take root within our hearts; secondly, let hope be shared and let love be greatest among these.(4)
Now let your servant depart in peace, or Lord, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people; to be a light of revelation to Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel.
May glory be to Georg Bocskay, and to the Holy Blood, and power, foremost, lord of lords, Ferdinand properly named Emperor of the Romans forever, Augustus of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, and Slovenia. The scribe of law and also of music in perpetuity, of the scribal arts I die. In Vienna this was written.(5)
Benedictus dominus Deus Israel quia visitant et fecit redemptionem plebis suae Et erexit cornu salutis nobis in domo David pueri sui Sicut locutus est per os sanctorum qui a s(a)eculo sunt prophetarum eius. Salutem ex inimicis nostris et de manu omniu(m) qui oderunt nos. Ad faciendam misericordiam cum patribus nostris; et memorari testa(m)enti sui sancti iusiurandu(m) quod iuravit ad Abrahi(m) patrem nostrum daturum se nobis. Ut sine timore de manu inimicoru(m) nostrorum liberati seruiamus, illi in sanctita te et iustitia coram ipso omnibus diebus nostris. Et tu puer Propheta altis sinu vocaberis pr(a)eibus eni(m) ante facie(m) domini parare vias eius. Ad dandam scientiam salutis plebi eius, in remissionem peccatorum eorum, Per viscera misericordia Dei nostri, in quibus visitavit nos oriens ex alto. Illuminare his qui in tenebris sunt et umbra mortis sedent addirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis.
Gloria patri et filio et spiritu sancto. Sicut erat principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.Canticum Zacharia(e) Luc(as) 1* Zacharias, pater ejus, repletus est spiritu sancto et prophetavit. Spiritus sequitur.
Eterna caeli gloria beata spes mortalium celsi Parentis Unice castaeque proles Virginis a dextram surgentibus exsurgat et mens sobria flagrans [et in] laudem Dei grates rependat debitas. Ortus refulget lucifer ipsamque lucem nu(n)tiat cadit caligo noctium lux sancta nos illuminet. Manensque nostris sensibus noctem repellat s(a)eculi omnia fine temporis purgata servet pectora. Qu(a)esita iam primum fides radicet altis sensibus secu(n)da spes congaudeat qua maior ex(s)tat charitas.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace. Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum. Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum. Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tu(a)e Israel.
Gloria Georgius Bochtana Sanguina Sacratis sum ac potentis sum principis et domini domini Ferdinandi Romanov umquam veratoris semper. Augusti ac Germaniae Hungaria(e) Bohemi(a)e Dalmati(a)e Croa(e) et Sclavonie ac Legis Scriba atque Musicus in perpetuam. Artis scribiendi me moriam. Viennae scripsit.
Spiral at Bottom of Page Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.  To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee: that thou mayst be justified in thy words and mayst overcome when thou art judged.  For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.  For behold thou hast loved truth: the uncertain and hidden things of thy wisdom thou hast made manifest to me.  Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.  To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.  Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels.  Cast me not away from thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.  I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.
 Deliver me from blood, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol thy justice.  O Lord, thou wilt open my lips: and my mouth shall declare thy praise.  For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted.  A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.  Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.  Then shalt thou accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon thy altar.(6)
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.(7)
Now let your servant depart in peace, or Lord, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people; to be a light of revelation to Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel.(8)
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus Christ. Amen. For ever and ever.(9)
Miserere mei deus s(ecundu)m magnas misericordia tua. Et s(ecundu)m multitudino(m) miserationu(m) tuaru(m) dele iniguitate(m) mea(m). Amplius lava me(a) ab iniguitate mea et a peccato meo munda me. Q[uon]i[a]m iniquitate(m) mea(m) ego cognosco, et p(e)c(ca)t(u)m meu(m) contra me est semp(er). Tibi soli peccavi et malu(m) coram te feci ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis et vincas cu(m) iudicaris. Ecce eni(m) in iniguitatibus conceptus sum et in pe(cca)t(or)is concepit me mater mea. Ecce enim veritate(m) dilexisti in certa et occulta sapienti(a)e tuo manifestasti mihi. Asperges me d(o)m(in)e hissopo et mundabar, lavabis me et sup(er) niuem dealbabor. Adiutor meo dabis gaudiu(m) et l(a)etitia(m) et exulatabunt ossa humiliata. Auerte facie(m) tua(m) a peccat(or)is meis et omnes iniguitates meas dele. Cor mundu(m) crea in me deus et spiritum rectum innouua in visceribus meis. Ne proicias me a facie tua et spiritu(m) sanctu tuum ne auferas a me. Redde mihi l(a)etitiam salutaris tui et spiritu principali confirma me. Docebo iniguos m(e)as tuas. et impii ad te convertentur. Libera me de sanguinibus deus deus salutis me(a)e: et exultabit lingua mea iustitia(m) tuam. D(omi)ne labia mea aperies et os meum an(n)untiabit laudem tua(m). Quoniam sic voluisses sacrificium dedissem. utiq(ua)m holocaustis non delectaberris. Sacrifitiu(m) deo spiritus contribulatus cor contritu et humiliatum deus no(n) despicies. Benigne fac domine in bona voluntate tua sion ut deficentus muri Jerusalem. Tunc acceptapis sacrificium iustiti(a)e et holocausta, tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Pater noster qui est in coelis sanctifiatur no[me]n tuu(m) adueniat regnu(m) tuum fiat voluntas tua sicut in terra, pane(m) nostru(m) guottidianum da nobis hodie et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris et ne nos inducas intentionem sed libera nos a malo. Amen.
Nunc dimittis seruu(m) tuu(m) domino secundum verbum tuum in pace. Quia videru(n)t oculi mei salutare tuum. Quod parasti ante faciem omniu(m) populorum. Lumen adrevelationem gentium et gloria(m) plebis tu(a)e Israel
Ave maria gratia plena d(omi)nus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus Chrstus. Amen. In s(a)ecula [saeculorum]
I want to thank Christine Cook, who recommended me for the volunteership at the Getty, and Elizabeth Morrison, Kristen Collins, Bryan Keene, Larisa Grollemond, Morgan Conger, Katherine Sedovic, and Alex Kaczenski of the Manuscripts Department. It was an honor to translate and to study with you all, and I couldn’t have wished for a better way to spend my summer.
1. Text of Psalm 117.
2. Text from Luke 1:68-79, The Song of Zachariah.
3. Text from Canticle of Zachariah, Luke 1.
4. Text from Breviary: Friday at Lauds.
5. Text from Canticle of Simon.
6. Text of Psalm 50 from the Duay-Rheims Bible.
7. Text of the Lord’s Prayer.
8. Text of the Canticle of Simon.
9. Text of the Ave Maria.
Very interesting, but actually what exactly did you decoded?
Hi Calvin! We love your article and miss you lots <3
Highlighting this painstaking work—what a great idea!
The next time, however, I suggest IRIS uses a (guest) editor who reads Latin: The transcriptions are full of mistakes.