Belgium: A Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land in the 15th Century

August 05, 2022
View of Jerusalem

The library of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KULeuven) wishes to restore and digitize one of its most precious incunabula: “Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam.”

The work of Canon Bernhard von Breidenbach, illustrated by the engravings of the artist Erhard Reuwich, was published in 1486 in Mainz, then between 1486 and 1522 several editions appeared in five different languages (Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, and French ).

Through its Adopt-A-Book program, the Flemish university is launching crowdfunding. It intends to collect the necessary funds for the restoration and digitization of this work relating the pilgrimage of the German canon in the Holy Land.

On April 25, 1483, Bernhard von Breidenbach, canon of Mainz Cathedral, left his native land to go to Jerusalem, nearly nine months later. Inspired by the development of the printing press, he planned to relate his journey and publish it in the form of a guide.

The small group of pilgrims accompanying him was made up of the young count Johann Solms-Lich, the knight Philipp von Bicken, the cook Johann Heugti, the Italian interpreter Johann Knuss, and the artist Erhard Reuwich. Leaving from Rödelheim, they returned to Mainz in February 1484.

In Venice, the pilgrims embarked for Corfu, Modon, and Rhodes to land in Jaffa (currently Haifa) in the Holy Land. After Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other places in the Holy Land, they crossed the Sinai Desert to Saint Catherine’s Monastery and returned via Cairo and Alexandria. After crossing the Nile by boat to Rosetta, they reached Venice.

Besides the seven panoramic views of Venice, Parenzo, Corfu, Methoni, Heraklion, Rhodes, and Jerusalem, the work contains plates with figures of Saracens, Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Abyssinians, and Turks, a representation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and paintings with letters of the Arabic, Hebrew, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Greek alphabets.

The representation of animals (a giraffe, a unicorn, and a dromedary) is missing from the Leuven copy. The work also contains chapters on the different religious doctrines, a text on the distances between places on the road from Venice to Jaffa, a detailed calendar of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Mount Sinai, advice, rules, and recipes to protect themselves from the various vagaries of travel.

Particularly interesting are the illustrations of the ships that took the sea route from Venice to reach Palestine.

Bernhard von Breidenbach was a high-ranking clergyman from Mainz, Germany. Using his personal fortune, he recruited Erhard Reuwich, a painter from Utrecht, the Netherlands, to join the trip to the Holy Land. He wanted to create this guide using the very latest printing techniques. It was the first book to incorporate folding plates – a necessity as the panorama of Venice unfolds to over 1.62 meters.

In the library collection of the KULeuven, the Maurits Sabbe library contains the Latin edition of Peter Drach, printed in 1490 in the city of Speyer. Unfortunately, the condition of this copy is worrisome, partly because of the ravages of time, but also because of less successful attempts at restoration in the 19th century.

The delicate and thorough treatment will include cleaning and flattening of the views of six towns, removing the old 19th century green-grey paper duplicates, rebinding the book and restoring the original leather binding over oak boards.

The total cost of the operation is estimated at 8,000 euros. After the restoration work, the KULeuven plans to digitize the incunabula to make it accessible to the public.