A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Model Book of Rein

Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis 507

The finely drawn alphabets, animals, scenes and ornaments in this book once offered inspiration to artists at Rein Abbey in Austria. The allegorical depictions of exotic beasts derive from the Physiologus, an early Christian text by an anonymous Greek author who interprets the natural world in theological terms. For example, one scene shows elephants giving birth in rivers to save their young from being eaten by dragons; the text likens this act to the role of Christian baptism in protecting souls from evil. Mythology mixes freely with fact; further scenes include lions, eagles, phoenixes and a unicorn. More creatures inhabit the foliage that fills letters in the alphabet pages; another section shows craftsmen plying their trades, including an artist and an illuminator hard at work. The original function of the book as a ‘model’ remains uncertain, but its assortment of figures and patterns seems to align with the process of making medieval books. 

The original manuscript is preserved as the first 13 folios of a miscellany, a form of medieval anthology. Pitt's copy was produced in Graz, not far from Rein; it isolates the ‘model book’ from the unrelated texts of the codex, which are not illustrated beyond a few simple diagrams.  The custom-cut pages carefully reproduce not only images from the book but also the irregular edges and small holes of the parchment – imperfections that add to the practical and workmanlike quality of the object as a whole.

The complete manuscript, including the portions that were not reproduced in the facsimile, has been fully digitized and is available at the website of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

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