The picture bible of Ludwig Denig

Immediately after the American War of Independence, Ludwig Denig (1755-1830), a shoemaker living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, created a unique fraktur manuscript book, his picture bible. This is illustrated with 60 full-page watercolour paintings of Biblical scenes and allegories, the latter depicted in an emblematic style using everyday objects and scenes to teach spiritual values.

The wise and foolish virgins

The wise and foolish virgins

Denig’s Bible paintings present Christ’s Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, as well as the martyrdoms of the apostles. His characters are dressed not in traditional stylised Biblical clothing but in the colourful costumes of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. The wise and foolish virgins are dressed like Lancaster ladies of the 1780s, with aprons, shawls and caps. So is Salome, who presents the head of John the Baptist to a King Herod and courtiers sitting on Windsor chairs. The book as a whole, with its vivid folk images and pietistic texts written by a layman, is a remarkable product of the world of early American art and religion.

IMG_1373 (18)a

The martyrdom of John the Baptist

Denig’s picture bible was published in facsimile in 1990, but a copy was only acquired by the University Library in July 2015 on the second hand market (S950.a.9.546-547). It is a useful complement to the Library’s Bible Society collection, and is also a valuable addition to our holdings of emblem books. The Denig bible is one of the few items in the Library which merits the Library of Congress subject heading Fraktur art, and we have only one other item with an identical subject string – Fraktur art – Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Dutch County. This is a history of German language publishing in Pennsylvania by Russell and Corinne Earnest entitled Flying leaves and one-sheets : Pennsylvania German broadsides, Fraktur and their printers (862.b.376).

An unequal pair: Jesus and Barabbas (click on image to enlarge)

An unequal pair: Jesus and Barabbas (click on image to enlarge)

The manuscript picture bible is reproduced in its entirety. There are 265 facsimile pages and 60 full pages of colour paintings. A companion volume presents a translation into modern English of Denig’s German original, and includes a lengthy essay examining all aspects of Denig’s life and times, his faith, his environment, his book and its sources. It is accompanied by 67 black and white illustrations. The author and editor is Don Yoder, one of America’s most distinguished folklorists, who at the time was Professor of Folklife Studies and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

David Lowe

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