Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

“It became Hoefnagel’s task to think of illuminations that were every bit as extraordinary as this amazing writing.”

The exquisite Renaissance manuscript Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, or Monument of Miraculous Calligraphy, is the result of a unique partnership between two different artists working thirty years apart. From 1561 to 1562 the master calligrapher Georg Bocskay created a book in which he demonstrated hundreds of elaborate scripts in many different languages and alphabets. More than fifteen years after Bocskay’s death, the artist Joris Hoefnagel illuminated the pages with lifelike and wondrous illustrations of plants and insects from around the world. Many of the species he depicted were newly known in Europe, reflecting a recent increase in the global exchange of goods and information.

In this episode, retired Getty senior curator of drawings Lee Hendrix discusses how Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta exemplifies Renaissance attitudes toward art, science, and knowledge. Hendrix coauthored the introduction to a facsimile volume, which is now back in print after more than a decade through Getty Publications.

More to explore:

Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta buy the facsimile
Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta manuscript online

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LEE HENDRIX: It became Hoefnagel’s task to think of illuminations that were every bit as extraordinary as this amazing writing.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Lee Hendrix about the Renaissance manuscript Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta.
The Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta was composed by the calligrapher Georg Bocskay in 1561–62 and illuminated by the artist Joris Hoefnagel thirty years later. It is filled with beautiful calligraphy and wonderous depictions of flowers, fruits, seed pods, insects, caterpillars, mollusks, lizards, frogs, mice, and other small creatures. A beautiful and highly accurate facsimile of this manuscript has recently been published by Getty Publications with an introduction by Lee Hendrix, retired senior curator and head of the Department of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Thea Vignau-Wilberg, retired curator of Netherlandish prints and drawings at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich.
Here to talk with me about this Renaissance era wonderland of observation and depiction is Lee Hendrix.
Lee, thanks for joining us.
Tell us about the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, the book’s calligrapher Georg Bocskay, its illuminator Joris Hoefnagel, and how the two of them came to work on the same manuscript.
HENDRIX: Well, it’s an amazing and improbable story. Georg Bocskay was born in Croatia. And he became a court scribe to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. And he worked at the imperial court at Vienna from 1556 to ’64. And he illuminated a number of so-called writing model books.
At this point—this is in the Renaissance—writing became a great art form. In many ways, inspired by the necessity for court scribes to produce just reams of documents. And they had to master scripts in many different languages, but also many different script forms. What we don’t realize today, because we’re all kind of uniformly taught in school to write print and cursive, is that at that time, there were as many different script forms as there were languages.
So black letter, cursive writing, backwards writing, as we have in Leonardo da Vinci. And Georg Bocskay was the greatest master of script in the world for his time. And that’s why this book is inscribed, our manuscript is inscribed, Mira calligraphiae monumenta—monument of miraculous calligraphy.
At the behest of Emperor Ferdinand I, Georg Bocskay made a writing model book of hundreds of different forms of script. He made three of these: one at the Getty, one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and one in the Royal Library in Vienna.
But what’s more improbable still is that Emperor Ferdinand I, his grandson, Emperor Rudolf II, who ruled from 1576 to 1612, hired the last great manuscript illuminator of the age, Joris Hoefnagel, to illuminate this book.
So that what is the most improbable circumstance, the writer, Georg Bocskay, the greatest master of calligraphy of the age, and the illuminator, Joris Hoefnagel, never knew each other. Because Bocskay died in 1575. And Hoefnagel didn’t illuminate this until the mid-1590s. So it became Hoefnagel’s task to think of illuminations that were every bit as extraordinary as this amazing writing. And that is the construct around which this manuscript took shape.
CUNO: Let me just stop you for a second, and help me understand this. So the calligrapher made a book of calligraphy first. And was it intended from the very beginning that it would eventually be illuminated?
HENDRIX: Never.
CUNO: Tell us the relationship between the illuminated elements in the book and the script in the book.
HENDRIX: First of all, the sixteenth century was really a great, great age of writing. And these scribes, such as Bocskay, became incredibly famous. This was the great age of printing, first in woodcuts and second in engraving. And so many of these great writing mastered published manuals of writing. And what they would do is take these writing samples—they were just standard stock chunks of writing that were often repeated from breviaries and Bibles. And then they would write them in these fantastic scripts. So that was the original purpose of Bocskay’s manuscript, writing samples.
CUNO: Can I ask you, did it matter what the script said? That is, what the writing said. Or was it just the look of the writing that mattered the most?
HENDRIX: More or less. It was the beauty of the writing and the virtuosic demonstration of these fantastic styles of writing. Sometimes they were called taglia, cut letters, where the front part of the top was separated from the bottom. There was backwards writing. There were descenders and ascenders and serifs. And what these essentially are, are flourishes that go above the main line of writing, below the main line of writing; and a serif is a little flourish at the tail of the letter. There was fantastic what the Germans called [German], decorative writing, where the ascenders and descenders and serifs would go in these fantastic circular forms.
So our manuscript was not intended to be illuminated.
CUNO: Now, did the emperors Ferdinand or his grandson Rudolf have an especially distinguished collection of such manuscripts? Or was this an exception?
HENDRIX: Yes. Ferdinand, he must’ve valued calligraphy greatly because he commissioned Bocskay to do three separate extensive manuscripts of calligraphy, two of which remain in what are now the imperial collections in Vienna.
So I think my guess is that Rudolf was honoring his grandfather. And his grandfather thought so much of his calligrapher Bocskay that then Rudolf, thinking back to his grandfather, sought to, in a way, add his own kind of completion—or what we say in the manuscript world of gloss—his own kind of commentary—by getting one of the greatest artists of his court, Hoefnagel, to add his own illuminations.
CUNO: Now, we keep talking about the book as being illuminated, rather than filled with illustrations. What’s the difference between illumination and illustration?
HENDRIX: Well, illumination is a word that art historians invented to refer to books that were hand-painted in the Middle Ages and up through the sixteenth century. Illumination literally refers to the gold and silver that was applied to the letters, but it became to apply to the overall painting of the book: illuminated.
And what needs to be understood here is that we’re not talking about paper; we’re talking about skin, vellum, which is the skin of sheep or a goat. And it is an incredible surface. It’s a skin, so it has tiny little kind of bumps. And it’s very reactive to humidity. So that it’s kind of alive as a surface. And that makes the illuminations very much alive to color, to changing light. It’s very reflective. It’s a much more reactive surface than paper.
CUNO: Now, when you look at the pages now, you see the integration of script and image, and you think Bocskay must’ve taken into account that something at some time would occupy the blank part of the page, that there would be illumination. But you’re telling me there wasn’t the illumination considered at the time.
HENDRIX: No. No. And if you look at printed pattern books of calligraphy, there’re consistently— I mean the words at the top of the page and there’s just blank space at the bottom. Our manuscript, the Getty’s manuscript, is a handwritten, hand-painted model book of calligraphy. But the format of it is exactly corresponding to printed model books of calligraphy, which have the text at the top of the page, and then just blank space at the bottom.
CUNO: Who was the intended receiver of such a book? Who would read such a book? Who would look at such a book? Who would have access to this book? Was it just simply the emperor himself?
HENDRIX: It’s unclear. Ferdinand, we don’t know all that much about his collections. But by the time of his grandson, Emperor Rudolf II, Rudolf had begun to form the imperial collections in a systematic way.
And this took the form of what was known as a Kunst- and Wunderkammer, a chamber of art and rarities. And this collection sought to mirror the entire contents of the world in an encyclopedic way. And so Rudolf’s collection was kept in a series of rooms, where it was arranged on tables and some cabinets.
The emperor, of course, had unlimited access to it, but it was routinely shown to guests, and artists in his orbit, scientists in his orbit. So it was kind of in a limited way, open to those who wanted to see it.
CUNO: And the images that were made under Rudolf himself, at his command, were they of fruits and vegetables and plants and things from distant places, so part of the wonder was not just how beautiful they were, but where in the world they came from and how much they told us about the extent of the reach of the court into the world?
HENDRIX: Absolutely. This, of course, was the great age of exploration. And Rudolf was the eastern branch of then Hapsburg Dynasty. The western branch ruled Spain. And of course, Spain was the conduit to all of the miraculous plants and animals that were being discovered in the New World; whereas Rudolf, who had his court in Vienna and Prague, was the conduit for all of these amazing plants that were coming from Turkey. Remember, this was the age when the Turks were threatening Europe, and so there was constant diplomatic exchange between the Hapsburg courts in Vienna and Prague and the Ottoman emperor.
And our manuscript, particularly shows the influx of exotic flowers from Turkey, especially bulb plants like tulips, lilies, anemones. These plants were being brought by the carload into Vienna and Prague, where the imperial court would then grow them in the imperial gardens. These plants were viewed as absolutely wondrous. People had never seen the colors of these miraculous tulips that would just burst into bloom with completely surprising, brilliant colors that were absolutely unheard of at that point in the world of European gardening.
CUNO: Now, in your introduction to the facsimile that we’re going to be talking about soon, you talked about how the play of text and image was inspired by the Renaissance elevation of the visual arts to the status of the liberal arts. Tell us about that.
HENDRIX: Well, Hoefnagel, the artist who made these illuminations, was a truly Renaissance man. He was one of the most learned artists of his time. One of the reasons that Hoefnagel is so difficult for present-day scholars to comprehend is that he was a linguist as much as he was an artist. He was fluent in many other foreign languages, including Greek and Latin. And he viewed his own artform as a kind of universal knowledge. And that is reflected in our manuscript in the amazing array of insects, plants, flowers.
For those who will have access to the facsimile, you’ll see that we have identified almost every single insect and plant in this book with scientific names. That meant that Hoefnagel had to have known them himself. He made this manuscript before the first illustrated treatise on insects. So he was doing the original legwork, the original scientific work—gathering these insects, gathering these flowers—and depicting them with such scientific accuracy that when we made this facsimile and studied them and brought scientists, naturalists in to help us, they were able to identify almost every one with scientific names. So that is evidence that art is not just a craft, that it is at the forefront of science.
And that’s another important point in the elevation of art in the Renaissance world. You can’t separate art and science; they’re the same thing. Artists were on the forefront of anatomical exploration, of entomology, and of botany.
CUNO: Maybe this is another way of putting it. You said that Emperor Rudolf was especially interested in objects bearing microcosmic and macrocosmic associations.
HENDRIX: Yes.
CUNO: What did you mean by that?
HENDRIX: The relationship of the part to the whole—microcosm being the part, macrocosm being the whole—was a central part of the thought process of the Renaissance. There was a great belief that the small parts of the world bore a great relationship to the unifying principles of the cosmos.
There’s a beautiful depiction of an apple with a double core. A kind of aberration within nature. And he depicts that in great detail on one of the pages of our manuscript. That reflects back on the mystery of the cosmos as a whole.
So when people looked at small elements of the— of the— of the— of the natural world, they drew kind of greater conclusions about the nature of the cosmos, as it worked.
The book was meant to be an encyclopedic compendium. In the sixteenth century, there was a striving towards universal knowledge. And our manuscript was intended to reflect all of the surviving scripts. It doesn’t really, but that was the intention. So therefore, it contains Hebrew, it contains hundreds of different scripts in different languages. And Hoefnagel intended this book as what was known then as a florilegium, which was a compendium of flowers. So it contains hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of flowers.
So as a combination of script and image, this book strives to reflect in its own way, the scripts of the world, the flowers in nature, and the insects in nature. So it attempts at a kind of universal knowledge, which in turn, in its own way, would’ve fit perfectly into Rudolf’s Kunstkammer, which as a whole, as a greater whole, was attempting to reflect the entirety of the universe.
CUNO: Now, you were just talking about it as a Kunstkammer, an art room. But it’s also called a Wunderkammer, which indicates that it’s something more than art. It’s about science and wonder and everything. Tell us about the difference between Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer.
HENDRIX: In many ways, because of the expansion, the amazing expansion of the world at this time, with the exchange of knowledge, because, you know, the Dutch were off in the Indies doing their trading and exploring; the Spanish and the Portuguese in the New World; the English all over the place, in the New World and in India. And you can see in the natural history treatises, there was this fantastic exchange of unheard of new discoveries. And this is one reason that this so-called Kunst- and Wunderkammer, this chamber of rarities, became a fad all over Europe at this time. People collected these so-called wonders.
And it kind of started with natural wonders; but artists themselves caught on, and they then sought to create artistic wonders. And in this way, Bocskay’s script is a kind of calligraphic wonder. And you look at the title of the book, Mira calligraphiae monumenta, monuments of miraculous calligraphy.
And then you look at Hoefnagel’s flowers. And these flowers that appear, they’re cut off at their stem. They don’t have roots. They seem to just materialize, like a kind of dream or a phantom before your eyes, as a wonder. Hoefnagel’s own art makes them kind of materialize as these wondrous colorful flowers that have no natural moorings. So in that sense, it’s a Wunder.
And in both ways, the script as miraculous and the flowers as miraculous, they’re a perfect embodiment of the objects that populated this so-called Kunst- and Wunderkammer of Rudolf II.
CUNO: Now, we think—or at least I think—of the Wunderkammer and the Kunstkammer and as a phenomenon of the sixteenth century, of the Renaissance, and maybe early in the seventeenth century.
Maybe that’s not the case. But if it is, what is it that brought about the decline of interest in the Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer?
HENDRIX: Well, this is just my perspective, but when the Kunst- and Wunderkammer had its great period, which is during the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, art and science were the same thing. It’s hard for us to realize this today, when our world I so fragmented and scientists work, you know, in their laboratories and art historians are over here in their universities and museums, and never the twain shall meet. But in these days, artists were on the forefront of science.
Hoefnagel, I should also mention, was one of the best-traveled people of his age. He went everywhere, for all of the trouble of traveling in the sixteenth century. He lived in England and France and Spain and Germany and Vienna and Prague. He traveled extensively in Italy, and he gave drawings to one of the greatest cartographers of his age, named Frans Hogenberg. And these drawings became the principal source for one of the greatest cartography books of the era, called the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, the Cities of the World.
In Hoefnagel’s world, at the court of Rudolf II, at the same time in the Prague castle, there was Tycho Brahe, who was doing his tables, mapping the universe; there was Johannes Kepler; there was Carolus Clusius, tone of the greatest botanists of the age, who was certainly a close friend of Hoefnagel’s. And Hoefnagel was at the forefront of entomology; he was at the forefront of biology; and in other of his works, he was at the forefront of zoology.
And what I believe happened is that science and art began to bifurcate in the seventeenth century. They became separate entities. And with the separation of art and science, the reason for being of the Kunstkammer, went away because these things were separated.
CUNO: Now, at some point, the emperor died, of course. And the book was removed from its imperial holdings. That is, from the collection in the castle. And it was acquired many, many centuries later, two centuries later at least, by Getty in 1986. What do we know about its history of ownership from the moment that it left the palace or the castle to its arrival at the Getty?
HENDRIX: Well, this is an absolutely amazing art story, and I love this story. Our manuscript was completely unknown, except for this one publication in the very early years of the twentieth century.
Julius von Schlosser, who was a great, great curator at the Vienna art museum, he was the man responsible for putting the Kunst- and Wunderkammer on the map. This form of collecting had really gone so far into the past that scholars didn’t understand the existence of it until Julius von Schlosser published this book, right after 1900, called Die Kunst- and Wunderkammer, the Art and Wonder Room.
And when he was an old man, his many students published a celebratory text called a Festschrift for him. And his greatest student, whose name is Ernst Kris, published this article with two pages—only two pages—of our manuscript, illustrated. Remember, this is right after 1900, so illustrations were extremely expensive. One of them was the apple with the double core. And this was all that was known of this manuscript. And many people thought it had perished—you know, been cut up by a dealer. I mean, we didn’t know anything more. We did— And it didn’t credit who owned it. That was all we knew of it.
Until 1986, when its then-owner, who was a European who asked to remain anonymous, died and the Getty was able to acquire it. And in the course of writing the commentary to the facsimile, my colleague Thea Vignau went to archives all over Europe, and managed to discover, through just amazing archival work, what is pretty much an unbroken heritage for this manuscript.
We we don’t know how it left Rudolf’s Kunstkammer, but you have to remember that there was great religious and political unrest during Rudolf’s reign. And Rudolf was a emperor who was devoted to art and science, but he was avoidant of the almost impenetrable political and religious troubles of his time. So he was essentially toppled by his brother Matthias, who became emperor, and unseated Rudolf as emperor. And then after that, the Swedes invaded Prague and much was lost of the imperial Kunstkammer at that time. So perhaps our manuscript then left the imperial collection.
And it then went through various collections in Vienna and Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and another collection in Frankfurt am Main, and then another Frankfurt collector. And then finally, it entered another European collection and was there for many years, until we at the Getty acquired it in ’86.
CUNO: Well, it’s a crown jewel of the collection, I should think. Now, we share our manuscript collection with the general public by mounting a series of manuscript exhibitions in our galleries. But even so, we can only show a few pages of any one book at a time. To supplement the exhibitions, we’ve published a series of facsimile manuscripts, including a facsimile of the manuscript we’ve been discussing today. What distinguishes a facsimile from an illustrated book?
HENDRIX: In a facsimile, we strive to recreate the manuscript as a whole and to try as best we can with technology, to give the reader a sense of what it’s actually like to hold that manuscript. So the facsimile of the Hoefnagel is to scale. Most facsimiles are to scale.
CUNO: So it’s the same size as the original.
HENDRIX: The same size. And we try as best we can to give the reader a physical sense of what it’s like to actually look at the folios—a folio is manuscript talk for a page.
And it’s very interesting in the case of this second edition, because we made the first edition with old-fashioned photography. And I was there. And it was impossible. I mean, we were color correcting for hours and hours on end. We had to redo and redo. And one of the most difficult colors to capture was the particular pigment of green that Hoefnagel used in the plants on almost every folio. So when digital photography came along, the second edition utilizes much superior means of capturing the physical properties of the page.
And when I compare the old with the new, it’s amazing. One thing that you’ll see in our second edition is Hoefnagel, he scored every page with a sharp instrument that helped him stay within the parameters of the script. And in the first edition, you can’t see this very delicate scoring. But in this edition, you can look and you can see this very delicate way that he scored the bottom of the page so that his illuminations would stay perfectly in line with the script.
So the technology of this facsimile really gives the reader the physical sense of the book.
The size is— It’s what I would call a medium-sized manuscript. Manuscripts are— the size is dependent upon literally, the size of the piece of skin. And Hoefnagel’s manuscript is what I would call a quarto. In book language, it’s a large piece of skin that you would fold in half and then in fourths. So it’s about the size of a hand. And manuscripts can be much smaller than that. But this is what I would call a kind of medium-size manuscript.
CUNO: And what distinguishes our publication from the original illuminated manuscript, of course, is the text that you and your partner in the project, Thea Vignau-Wilberg, who’s a retired curator of Nederlandish prints and drawings at the Graphische Sammlung Munich, how you, the two of you divided up the job of introducing the manuscript.
How did you divide it up and what did you say that she didn’t say? What did she say that you didn’t say?
HENDRIX: Well, my dear colleague Thea is a humanist in the sense that Hoefnagel is a humanist. And unfortunately, most people aren’t educated that way anymore. And by that I mean she’s an almost universal linguist. She is a classical Latinist and a classical Greek scholar. She’s as proficient in that as Hoefnagel was.
And you have to be, to understand his art fully, because Hoefnagel was what was then known as an emblematist, an emblematic artist. And we’ve talked about the striving for universal knowledge. And there was a form of art called emblems, which strove to unify words and images. And that’s at the heart of Hoefnagel’s art.
And we mostly talked about the first part of the manuscript, which is the calligraphy book with all of the flowers. I’m more interested in the natural history side. So it was more my task to do the first part of the book.
But there’s also a second part of the manuscript that’s a constructed alphabet. And in the quest for universal knowledge, we are familiar, for example, with Leonardo’s man inscribed inside a circle and a square, striving to get universally valid proportions that reflect the universe in a perfect way. Well, alphabets were also constructed to devise letter forms that were perfectly proportioned. So the second part of Hoefnagel’s manuscript is a constructed alphabet, first of capital letters and then of little letters, majuscules and minuscules, as they’re called in calligraphy. And each one is inscribed with a Latin verse from the Psalms, and then embellished with many forms of real animals, made up animals, real flowers, made up flowers.
And Thea Vignau, as the great humanist that she is, was able to decipher this very, very complicated suite of illustrations in Latin from the Psalms, with very many references to the Hapsburg court.
She wrote really the first comprehensive biography of Bocskay ever written, for our facsimile, going to work in all of these archives to find out his birthdate, when he came to work at the Hapsburg court. It’s since been amplified in a monographic work on Bocskay, but Thea did the legwork on the documents of the life and death of Joris Hoefnagel and Bocskay for our facsimile.
CUNO: The public has access to the facsimile; they can buy the facsimile. What about accessing the facsimile and the original illuminated manuscript digitally?
HENDRIX: Absolutely. The book is about eight-five dollars, but we have other ways to access it. We have smaller versions, treating the flowers and the insects and and the alphabet. And it can be accessed online. Anybody who accesses the Getty website and clicks on collection can see the digitized manuscript in full. So there’re many ways to have access to this manuscript.
CUNO: Well, it’s a beautifully printed manuscript, highly important book, and I wanna thank you for taking the time to talk with us about the book itself and its origins and its development on this podcast episode. It’s always great to see you, Lee. We miss you.
HENDRIX: Jim, my pleasure. Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at podcasts@getty.edu. Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LEE HENDRIX: It became Hoefnagel’s task to think of illuminations that were every bit as extraord...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »