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Illuminating objects: German miniature picture bibles come under the spotlight at the Courtauld Gallery
Dess Alten Testaments Mittler: Dess Neuen Testaments Mittler. Engraved by Christiana and Magdalena Küsel Augsburg, c. 1690, 5.7 x 5 cm. Contemporary silver mounts and clasps and later (19th century?) leather bindings. The Samuel Courtauld Trust: Gambier-Parry bequest, 1966.

LONDON.- The third display in the Illuminating Objects programme at The Courtauld Gallery focuses on the German miniature picture Bibles, Dess Alten Testaments Mittler: Dess Neuen Testaments Mittler. Produced by two sisters from Augsburg in the late 17th century, Johanna Christina (or Christiana) Küsel (also known as Kuslin) drew the designs and Maria Magdalena engraved them. Most 17th century ‘thumb’ bibles were for children but the Küsel books, with their intricate engravings, were most likely for use in private devotion. The research has been undertaken by Josephine Neil, who is taking her PhD in Theology and the Arts at King’s College London. This is probably the first time that the miniature Bible picture books, acquired by Thomas Gambier Parry near Nuremberg in 1851, have ever been on public display.

The sisters belonged to a family of printmakers: their grandfather was Matthaeus Merian, whose most famous engravings were for a history of the Bible published in Frankfurt in 1625, the Icones Biblicae. Christiana and Magdalena based their engravings on their grandfather’s compositions, adapting them to suit the scale and purpose of their miniature books.

An increasing emphasis on private devotion and personal piety in German-speaking countries during the 17th century encouraged the production of engraved cycles. As stress was laid on individual piety as a way of drawing Christians closer to God, so the demands for books and images for private devotion grew but artists had to work with the religious constraints imposed by the Reformation. The theological context of the miniature picture Bibles stems from Luther’s teaching, still prevalent in Augsburg more than a hundred years after his death in 1546. The Küsel sisters demonstrate the divide between the sinful exploits and human failings of the Old Testament and the promise of redemption inherent in the New.

Illuminating Objects is a series of internships offered by The Courtauld Gallery to postgraduate students at UK universities engaged in research primarily in disciplines outside the history of art. The internships are highly structured training opportunities, with students responsible for delivering their own single-object display in The Courtauld Gallery. Selecting a work from a group that matches their area of interest, they research and interpret the item, produce labels and copy for the website, a blog and a lunchtime talk. This interdisciplinary programme casts a different light on the objects in The Courtauld’s care, with interns from history and literature, the sciences and theology participating. Illuminating Objects is a collaboration between The Courtauld Gallery and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; King’s College London; Imperial College; University of Kent; and University College London (UCL).

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