The Speculum Humanae Salvationis as a Typological tract

By Berthold Kress


The Speculum Humanae Salvationis, which emerged in early 14th-century Italy, is by far the most wide-spread handbook of Typology in European art. The concept of Typology goes back to the Bible – Christ calling Himself the fulfilment of the Law and comparing His death and rest in the sepulchre to Jonas being devoured and later disgorged by a sea-monster (Mt. 12:40). These parallels spurred patristic and medieval theologians to discover numerous parallels between actions and prophecies of the Old Testament and episodes from the Life of Christ, and some authors expanded the system of parallels to include episodes from Nature, Ancient History, or the lives of saints.

In Art, Typology became prominent in the twelfth century, when large programmes, often in goldsmithwork like the Klosterneuburg retable, or in stained glass such as in Canterbury Cathedral, placed a scene of the Life of Christ (Antitype) next to one or more scenes from the Old Testament (Types).

These programmes are primarily combinations of images – tituli that rarely contain more than one line of Hexameter help the beholder to identify the individual scenes and to understand why they were combined. The Biblia Pauperum and the Concordantiae Caritatis, both illustrated typological handbooks devised in Austria during the 14th century, maintain this emphasis on the image, although they add an explanatory text to every Type so that they can offer typological parallels that are not obvious at the first glance.

Likewise, most manuscripts of the Speculum look like a strictly organised composition of interlinked texts and images: each opening contains four columns of text and above each column an image with a titulus – in the main section of the tract (chapters 3–42) the first image of each opening shows a sequence of events from Salvation History and thus functions normally as Antitype, and most of the three other images are Types.

However, the tituli only identify the individual images and do not explain the relation they have to one another, and the four columns of texts are not individual Lectiones as in the Biblia Pauperum but form part of one continuous text. Whilst each chapter contains exactly 100 lines of rhymed prose, has a heading referring to the subject-matter of the first illustration of the chapter and at least mentions the subject-matter of the other three images somewhere, its internal structure can vary considerably.

Whereas some chapters spend much space explaining the relationship between the three additional images and the principal image (e.g., Chapter 24 is wholly dedicated to typological comparisons), others are dominated by narratives or contemplations on the Antitype or catechetical excurses (e.g. Chapter 10 – here a meditation of the virtues of the Virgin Mary leads to a list of the Ten Commandments) and dedicate only a few lines towards the end to the additional images. Sometimes there are typological comparisons in the text that remain unillustrated (e.g., Chapter 8 refers additionally to the vine of Engaddi).

The relationship between the three additional images (in some manuscripts called Figurae) to the principal image is described in the text, and hence considerably more variation is possible than in the traditional typological text-image compositions.

The Figurae fall in a number of different categories: – Old-Testament events that prefigure the episode from the New Testament, thus 'Types' in the strict sense of the Word

Normally, the three Figurae are not interchangeable models of the New-Testament episode, but each stands for a different aspect of it. To give an example, the first Figura for the Betrayal of Judas (Chapter 18), Abner embracing and murdering Amasa, stands for Judas's treacherous kiss, the second, Saul throwing his spear at David, for the thanklessness of Judas and the Jews towards Christ, the third, Cain luring Abel away and killing him, once again for treacherous expressions of love but more importantly for envy as the principal motif for the plotting of Christ's death.

In some cases, they are even less close to one another:

Despite these complexities, the images from the Speculum were also imported into other media, such as stained glass, where they were deprived of the explanatory text and thus appear in a simplistic way as straightforward Types and Antitypes, although this does not make sense in every case. Likewise, the database juxtaposes Types and Antitypes as shown in the illustrations, even if the text suggests different comparisons.

Many illustrations of the earliest manuscripts of the Speculum show idiosyncratic, highly symmetrical compositions. These were kept in a number of later manuscripts, and even in some of the printed editions, but other artists replaced them with more conventional images, which in some cases explain the typology better (e.g., Chapter 26 is dedicated to Mary's sorrow over Christ's death. The original image shows the deposition, but some later manuscripts the Lamentation or a Pietà).

The first and the last section of the Speculum have a different structure. For the Introduction, no standardized iconography existed, and it remained unillustrated in all but a few manuscripts. Chapters 1 and 2 have, like the main body of the tract, each 100 lines of text and four images, but all of them are part of a continuous narrative of the beginning of Salvation History, from the Fall of Rebel Angels to the Ark of Noe. All depicted scenes are mentioned in the text – however, it is not a historical narrative but rather a lament of the Fall discussing its cause, consequences, and the work of Redemption it necessitated. Chapters 43–45 have the double length of the standard chapters – slightly over 200 lines of text and eight images each. They all deal with seven-part devotions: the Hours of the Passion, the Seven Sorrows and the Seven Joys of the Virgin. The first image of each chapter shows a vision encouraging the devotion, the others its seven parts.

The Speculum - introduction

The Speculum - summary

The Speculum - images in the database