Speculum humanae salvationis
SPECULUM HUMANAE SALVATIONIS
The Speculum humanae salvationis (‘Mirror of human salvation’) is a religious work relating the life of Christ and the Holy Virgin. At the top of each page there are two illustrations; four can be seen when the book lies open. One of the pictures represents an event from the New Testament, while the other three depict Old Testament stories. The Old Testament events were seen as prefigurations of the New Testament’s message of salvation. This late medieval work has come down to us in various languages and formats: in manuscript, as a block book and in letterpress printed editions.
Until the late 19th century it was thought that block printing – the technique of printing texts from wooden blocks into which the letters are carved – was a precursor of the art of printing, i.e. printing with movable type. Baron van Westreenen thought that Laurens Jansz. Coster, the alleged inventor of the art of printing in Haarlem, had first practised block printing and had subsequently started to print with type consisting of movable wooden printing types. In light of this, the use of movable metal type would have been the German contribution to the development of the art of printing.
This Latin edition of the Speculum, printed in the Netherlands, has been executed partly in block printing and partly in letterpress. This led Van Westreenen to think that he held in his hands proof of an extremely important moment in the history of the book: he believed that a section of the book had been printed with wooden blocks, but that during the process the switch to printing with movable wooden type had been made – the invention of the art of printing caught in the act, so to speak. However, careful examination of the pages employing block printing has shown that these were made after a typographic example (which means that the woodcutter had a ‘typeset’ copy already to hand).
Van Westreenen bought this rare book in 1809 in Brussels at the auction of the library of the Belgian librarian C.A. de La Serna Santander, a great authority on the early history of printing.