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Birds Images in Incunabula

When and how did people become interested in birds for the first time? - For a virtual exhibition investigating the issue, we use one of the richest sources - printed books. This review is the result of search for images of birds in the collection of early printed editions at the National Library of Russia.

The Gutenberg Bible - the first book to be printed in Europe, already contains images of many different birds. These pictures were painted in by hand and were executed by different artists. At our library in St. Petersburg, there is no original copy of the Gutenberg Bible, but the «Faust Study», the special repository of incunabula in the NLR, possesses an excellent large-format Berlin facsimile copy of the 42-line Johannes Gutenberg Bible, which was released in 1913-1914 by the publisher «The Island» («Der Insel Verlag»).

Its ornamental decoration includes more than thirty images of birds. Many of them are depicted very realistic: a hoopoe, a parrot, a crane, a hen, a woodpecker, an eagle can be easily recognized. Some birds are shown disproportionately small, for example, one birdie has the same size with a fly. The eagle holding a hare in the paws is painted three times in the same manner, and a fox grabbing a chicken is shown once.

Publications of the fifteenth century historical books and Bibles are often accompanied by a cycle of engravings illustrating the six days of creation. An image of the state of our planet by the end of the fifth day certainly shows just created fish and birds.

Engraving from the Chronicles of Schedel
Artists often use a drawing of a tree without leaves (to make it easier to see birds depicted on the branches). An engraving with a similar plot from the Chronicles of Schedel of 1493 depicts a few species of birds: an owl, a goose, a partridge, a falcon and a peacock. Some birds are shown schematically.

During the 15th century, pictures of birds are repeatedly found in publications of those literary works, in which recognizable members of the human community appear in the images of the birds. Species of depicted characters-birds are different: among them are hens and geese, peacocks and cranes, hawks and eagles… For instance, we can see a lot of birds in the pages of the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).

Portrait of Aesop. Hand painted  engraving from the book «Aesop's Fables»
The collection of Aesop's fables was already known at the end of the fifth century in Athens, children in school learned the words of Aesop. 'You are ignorant and lazy, and have never read your Aesop' - says one of the personages in the comedy of Aristophanes. After the invention of the printing press, the book of fables published many times in different cities. Interest in Aesop's Fables extended to his personality: he was portrayed as a hooked, lame person, with the face of a monkey - in a word, ugly in all respects, such as he is depicted on the illustrations in the book of fables, published by Heinrich Knoblochzer's printing house in 1481 in Strasbourg. A copy of this publication from the collection of the NLR is illustrated with many hand painted engravings.

As many as 584 works are systematized in the fullest reference book of Aesop's Fables by Edwin Perry (the so called Perry Index). The heroes of many fables are birds, as evidenced by the titles: The Partridge and the Hens, The Swallow and Other Birds, The Dove and the Crows, The White Jackdaw, The Peacock and the Jackdaw, the Eagle and the Fox, The Eagle and the Jackdaw, The Tortoise and the Eagle, The Man and Partridge, The Donkey, the Rook and the Shepherd, The Frog, the Rat and the Crane, The Rook and the Fox, The Fox and the Stork, The Hen and the Swallow, The Crows and Birds, The Fox and the Dove, The Cock and Diamant, The Cock and Servants etc.

Aesop's Fable «The Eagle, the Jackdaw and  the Shepherd»
Bird illustrations in the Strasbourg edition are far from perfect, the author of engravings provides only minimal resemblance to the depicted birds but respects certain conditions, such as size (all the pictures are in proportion). The latter applies to the fable The Eagle, the Jackdaw and the Shepherd.

The eagle flew down from a high rock and carried off a lamb. A jackdaw who saw this, was stirred with envy and determined to do the same. And he swooped down on a large ram with a loud cry. But his claws became entangled in the ram’s fleece and he was unable to get free, although he flapped his wings as much as he could. The shepherd, guessing what had happened, ran up and caught him. He clipped the jackdaw’s wings, and, in the evening, carried the bird home to his children. Children began to ask, 'what kind of bird is it?' And he replied: "I certainly know he is a jackdaw, but he wants to be taken for an eagle!’
Just so, to compete with the powerful lead to no good, and your failures court only mockery.

Nearby is another illustration of the eagle in the fable «The Eagle and the Beetle».

The Eagle was chasing after a hare. The Hare saw that there was no one to help but the Shard-Beetle, and asked the Beetle for protection. The Beetle encouraged him and begged the predator to spare the Hare who had taken refuge in his nest. The Eagle did not even pay attention to such an insignificant defender and ate the Hare. But the Beetle did not forget this offence: he relentlessly followed the eagle nests, and each time, as the eagle bore eggs, he got into the nest, rolled the eagle's eggs out of it one by one and broke them.
The Eagle had no peace and, finally, flew up to Jupiter and asked to give him a quiet place to incubate eggs. Jupiter let the Eagle put the eggs in his bosom. The Beetle saw that and, having made a little ball of dung, soared with it and dropped the ball in Jupiter's lap.
Jupiter rose up to shake it off and threw the eggs down, and they were again broken. Ever since, they say, the eagles have started breeding in the season when there are no beetles to be met.
The fable teaches that no one should be despised, because even the weakest may find a way to avenge an insult.

Images of a crane and a peacock illustrate the fable

A golden-winged peacock mocked a modest crane that passed by, ridiculing his colorless and dull plumage. The Crane said, 'But I can soar up to the heavens, and lift up my voice to the stars, while you can hardly fly low over the ground, like a cock, and you were never seen in the sky'.
Better to be a worthy person wearing poor clothes than to live dishonorably in a rich dress.

To show the effect: as a farmer killed a bird, laying the golden eggs, the artist depicts a bird twice: («The Goose that Lays Golden Eggs»).

One man especially honored Hermes, and for this, Hermes gave him goose that laid the golden eggs. But the man had no patience to gradually grow rich. He decided that the bird must be lined with gold, and, without thinking twice, cuts the goose open to find the gold inside her. But he was deceived in his expectations, because he found only some giblets. There were no longer any more golden eggs.
The moral drawn there is: greedy people want much more and lose all they have.


An Eagle - the symbol of John the Evangelist - is depicted on the title page of Aesop's Fables, in the book by the printer Jakub from Breda (Deventer 8.04.1498.)

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum [Germ.] = Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten. - Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, [1493.12.23]. - 2°.
Engraving from the Chronicles of Schedel.
Portrait of Aesop. Hand painted engraving from the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Illustration to Aesop's fable «The Eagle, the Jackdaw and the Shepherd».
From the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Illustration to Aesop's fable «The Eagle and the Beetle».
From the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Illustration to Aesop's fable «The Crane and the Peacock»
From the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Illustration to Aesop's fable «The Goose that Lays Golden Eggs»
From the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Title Page of Aesop's Fables.
Printer Jakub from Breda (Deventer, 8.04.1498 г.)
Birds – Characters of Aesop's Fables.
From the book «Aesop's Fables» (Aesopus. Vita et Fabulae. Strasbourg, 1481).
Printer Johannes Gutenberg. Bible. Майнц, около 1455 г.