Thomas Haffner

Translation by Heike Campbell
Johannes Kentmann’s Herbal book in the SLUB Dresden
Johannes Kentmann’s „Kreutterbuch“ may be considered the most beautiful and the largest plant book from the German Renaissance period. Although this splendid display book was from the beginning part of the special treasures of the library, the first scientific commentary and analysis was only carried out by the botanists Peter Hanelt and Johannes Helm in 1971 and it took another 34 years until an edition including high quality colour prints of 38 selected illustrations and contributions by Hansjochen Hancke and Marina Heilmeyer was published by Thomas Bürger for the 2. Sächsischen Landesausstellung at Torgau in 2004, where the original folio was on display. A large format calendar with detailed images was brought out at the same time. In 2017 the Kreutterbuch was digitised in high resolution and made available online in the digital collections of SLUB ( The Kreutterbuch’s current and first complete reprint in a smaller format is based on these digital reproductions.
The essential information about the 48 x 34 cm, almost 9 cm thick and 305 page edition, which is stored under the signature Mscr.Dresd.B.71 in the SLUB Dresden, is already shown on the elaborate title page (plate 1r): The book, ordered by the Elector August of Saxony, contains the carefully executed, exquisite, true to nature illustrations of 600 native and non-native trees, shrubs, hedges and herbs and their flowers, seeds, leaves and roots, which were assembled (and arranged) by the physician Doctor Johann(es) Kentmann from Dresden. The splendid frame design of a double layered scroll, an ornamental form typical for its time, is signed by David Redtel, who also created the masterful plant illustrations and is inscribed with the date 1563. The two cherubs above the frame are not only holding up the Electorate of Saxony‘s coat of arms, but also the Danish coat of arms of Electress Anna who was, as the first female German apothecary (NBD), at the very least as much interested in botany as her spouse. The bouquets of leaves, flowers and fruits held on a string by cherubs and masks indicate the contents of the book. Also remarkable exotic symbols are the two parrots (a Grey parrot on the right and an Amazon parrot on the left).
Johannes Kentmann, born on 21 April 1518 in Dresden, studied medicine in Leipzig and Wittenberg and after completing his masters degree travelled to Italy in 1546 to continue his studies in Padua and Bologna. Through his brief time as supervisor of the famous Botanical garden in Padua and his travels to Venice and Rome he was able to get to know Southern flora. After being awarded his doctorate of medicine in Bologna he returned to Dresden in 1549 via Zurich, where he met the influencial natural scientist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565). In 1550 he became town and school doctor in Meißen and in 1554 town doctor in the Royal residence town Torgau, where he could afford to live in his own house with a study and where he died in 1574 at the age of 56. Apart from his Kreutterbuch he left behind his own plant and animal drawings as well as essays about the black death (1553 and 1568), fish and birds of the river Elbe (1556 and 1569), the formation of stones in the human body (1565) and about the minerals and rocks from his own collection (1565). Not much is known about the painter David Redtel. He first worked in his birthplace Torgau and from 1571 until his death in 1591 in Stettin where he was court painter for the Pommeranian Duke Johann Friedrich. Apart from the plant illustrations in the „Kreutterbuch“ all that is left from his works is a large winged altarpiece in Greifenhagen (Gryfino), (today in the National Museum Stettin) dated 1580 and signed both by name and the signum of two intertwining snakes. The latter appears not only on the front page of the „Kreutterbuch“, but also less noticably on 26 of the plant illustrations (either separate (example plate 2r) or as intertwining tendrils at the end of delicate shoots wrapping themselves around the base of the plants (example plate 3v). The emphasis on being true to nature and the meticulous illustrations of the plants („Nach lebendigen Gewechsen auff das Vleisigiste und eigentlichste konterfet“) on the front page of the „Kreutterbuch“ is a reminder of the important printed 1530-1536 and 1542 herbal books by Otto Brunfels (1488-1534) and Leonhardt Fuchs (1501-1566): „Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem summa cum diligentia et artificio effigiatae …“ (Vivid images of herbs drawn true to nature with the greatest diligence and craftsmanship…) and „De historia stirpium commentarii insignes … adiectis earundem vivis plusquam quingentis imaginibus, nunquam antea ad naturae imitationem artificiosius effictis & expressis“ (Outstanding description of the history of plants….. with more than 500 vivid, never before executed and printed more skillfully and true to nature). Even more explicit are the allusions to the title of the German version of Fuchs‘ herbal, published 1543: „A new herbal book which not only most dilligently describes the complete history (of plants) with names, growth form, place and speed of growth, nature, vigour and effect of most of the herbs growing in Germany and other countries, but also their roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seed, fruits and the complete plant form and is so skillfully and artfullly illustrated as has never before seen the light of day“. The plant woodcuts for which Brunfels and Fuchs chose very skilled draftsmen (Hans Weiditz, Heinrich Füllmaurer und Albrecht Meyer) cover whole pages.
In contrast to the books named above, the text in Kentmann’s Kreutterbuch, which was only to be presented to the Elector, plays a vanishingly small part: The reverse of the title page shows under the heading „Genesis I“ two quotations from the Genesis that describe the growth, propagation and the fruits of plants as food (Gen 1,11 and 29-30) (plate 1v). Following this is the dedication signed on 26 October 1563 by Kentmann to the Electorate (plate 6r/v; originally plate 2r/v). It includes parts similar to the dedications by Fuchs, but with less emphasis on the medicinal uses of plants and more on their aesthetics and symbolism. At the beginning three rulers from antiquity are mentioned: the Persian king Cyrus the Great (ruled approx. 559-530 B.C. who created a formal garden in Susa), the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (ruled 336-323 B.C. who admired the hanging gardens of Babylon and sent exotic plants from his Indian campaign back to his homeland) and the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 A.D. who preferred to occupy his time in the „Horti Sallustiani“ in Rome). Elector August is placed with these three, who just as wise Solomon did, knew of the benefits of plants and recognized and honoured in them the work of the creator. On to August’s Regency is transferred God’s creation and protection of plant prosperity, blossoming and fruits, especially King David’s palm symbol (Ps 92,13), representing justice (not without reason is the dedication followed by a picture of the date palm). At the end Kentmann explains the order of plants in the „Kreutterbuch“ which is not done (as by Fuchs) in alphabetical order, but by morphological features: The first part is trees (to plate 38r), the second part is perennials and hedges (to plate 62v) and the third part herbs. The latter are split into winter flowering plants (December to February, to plate 66r), bulbs (to plate 80v), herbs with beautiful form and flowers, with curved and fibrous roots (to pate 105r), herbs with flowers and seeds in bunches (to plate 292r) and herbs with spines or prickly seeds (to plate 299v). Kentmann dispensed with the Greek and Latin nomenclature commonly used at the time and simply added to each plant illustration above the upper frameline descriptions in German, which are listed at the end of the book (plate Ir-Ivv) in an alphabetical index, (Register uber die Namen und Zunamen) with page numbers. Also missing are citations from the writings, descriptions and information about medicinal effects from doctors of antiquity. The masterful plant illustrations by David Redtel, with finely graduated hues made more luminous by the egg tempera colours applied onto the underlying pencil drawing, speak in a way for themselves. Around 125 of these go back to coloured quill drawings by Kentmann which he made during his stay in Italy which were bound together with his own hand written explanations (Observations), zoological illustrations and texts, along with nature prints (Typographia naturalis) by Kentmann’s son Theophil into an album with the title „Plantarum atque animantium nunquam hactenus impressarum imagines, partim in Italia, partim in aliis nationibus collectae et ad vivum expressae“ (Illustrations of plants and animals never before printed, collected partly in Italy and partly in other countries and depicted true to life) (today held as „Codex Kentmanus“ in the Duchess Anna Amalia library in Weimar). For the remaining plant illustrations Redtel could fall back on the live specimens from the botanical
garden of apothecary Joachim Kreich in Torgau and on those collected by Kentmann himself. The fact that the illustration with the header „Sittich Federn“ (probably meaning feather bush or cock’s comb (Celosia)) is missing on plate 245r, suggests that the labelling and the register were drawn up before the actual paintings. With the exception of the cypress, palm and banana plant which are portrayed complete, the trees and shrubs are only represented by a flowering or fruiting twig, whilst the portrayal of perennials and herbs, following a herbal book tradition that goes back to antiquity, is complete with roots, bulbs or tubers if applicable. Only occasionally are two plants shown on one page. Often various stages of the development of the flowers from bud to the open bloom, as well as seeds or fruits are simultanously depicted. All parts of the plant are shown from various angles. Only two plates show „snapshots“: A beetle is sitting the flower of „Wilden Peonia“ (Balkan peony, plate 82v) and red sap is dripping from the root of „Gros Schwalben Krauts“ (Greater celandine, plate 206v). Around 540 plant species from 93 families are depicted, of which approx. 67% are from Central Europe and 27% from the Mediterranean, just 3% from South and Southeast Asia, 2% from the subtropical and tropical Old World and a little over 1% from America. Relatively little known plants in Central Europe at the time are the banana (plate 6av), prickly pear (plate 35r), the tulip (plate 76v) and the tomato (plate 146v). The „Kreutterbuch“, on which Gessner (himself an precise draftsman) joyfully congratulated the author he was friendly with in a letter in 1564, became, after it was handed over to the royal couple, part of the library at Dresden Castle. In an inventory that was drawn up during the relocation of the „liberey“ (library) to Castle Annaberg in 1574 it is listed as „Kreuterbuch nach lebendigem wachs der Kreuter Contrafet durch Doctor Johann Kentman zu Torgaw“ in top position of the herbal and medicinal books. According to a slightly later archive catalogue the Nr. 1 listed „Kreutterbuch“ was then bound in „rot led[er] vergult mit Clausuren“ (gilded red leather with clasps). Following the death of August (1586) the library was returned to Castle Dresden by his son and successor Christian I. In a catalogue from 1595 Kentmann’s book is still listed first under the pharmaceutical books with the cover „in Braun Leder mit Clausuren, vorgultt, mit Bosseln“, meaning brown, gilded leather with clasps and buckles. Assuming this statement is correct, the original cover had already been replaced during the 16th century, presumably because it was handled very frequently. This conclusion can be drawn from a contemporary note by Theophil Kentmann in Codex Kentmanus (plate 58v) which states that the „Kreutterbuch“ is still shown in Dresden in the library (Bibliotheca) of Castle Dresden. In 1717 the book is praised in Christian Gerber’s „Unerkannten Wohlthaten Gottes, In dem Chur-Fürstenthum Sachsen“ (page 398) as a special attraction in the Elector’s library because of its deceptively true plant illustrations. The book was subsequently covered with today’s marbled calf leather binding with triple coloured endpapers and gilded spine with the words „JOHAN(N) KENTMAN(N)S KRAEUTERBUCH“. It is likely that for the rebinding the textblock was trimmed slightly and dyed red. Also two double pages (marked in ink as plate 2-5 and also listed in the index as such) were removed between the pages with the date palm and Musa (according to the index plate 1, in modern time marked in pencil as plate 6a)
and the pages with the Mastic tree and Chaste tree (marked in ink as plate 6 in correspondence with the index, in modern time with pencil as 6b) and inserted between the title page (modern in pencil as plate 1) and the dedication sheet (marked in modern time in pencil as plate 6). Subsequently many damaged pages have the edges protected with strips of paper. The lower edges of plate 2 to 6a had to be reinforced in the same way. For the current reprint the original page sequence has been restored. The „Kreuterbuch“ is missing from the first index of manuscripts of the Elector’s library in 1755, because it was at the time, (according to a side note in the catalogue from 1595) „laut [Leih-] Scheins des Königl. Hofrates und Leib-Medici de Heucher [1677–1747]“, still in the „Königl. Estampes und Naturalien Cabinet“ (later the Kupferstichkabinett and subsequently the Museum of Natural History) where Heucher was museum inspector from 1720. Johann August Müller wrote in 1789 in the 2nd volume of his „Versuchs einer vollständigern Geschichte der Chursächsischen Fürsten- und Landschule zu Meissen“ that the „Kreutterbuch is in the Elector’s library and how much it is appreciated by experts „in recognition of the trueness and vividness of the illustrations and the felicitous choice of colours“ (page 420). In the second preserved catalogue of manuscripts of the Elector’s library from around 1800 the „Kreutterbuch“ is found under the current signature „B.71“ with the annotation „very true and beautifully painted“. In the „Observatio Literaria“ Karl Wilhelm Dassdorf (librarian from 1775 to 1806 and then until 1812 senior librarian of Dresden Library) describes the book on the page opposite the title page as an outstanding collection of the most precisely drawn and painted plant illustrations of extreme realism and sophistication. Fortunately the „Kreutterbuch“ remaines preserved with no damage other than a few water and mould marks and can still be admired undiminished. Bibliography: Helm, Johannes: David Redtel, der bisher unbekannte Künstler des handgemalten „Kreutterbuches“ von Johannes Kentmann aus dem Jahre 1563, Hinweise und Belege, in: Sudhoff‘s Archiv 53 (1969) H. 2, pp. 153-159. Helm, Johannes: Johannes Kenntmann 1518-1574. Ein Sächsischer Arzt und Naturforscher, Wiesbaden 1971, (Sudhoffs Archiv, Beiheft 13), especially pp. 89-177 (The Kreutterbuch by Johannes Kentmann from 1563, with commentary and for the first time explained with a scientific index by Johannes Helm and Peter Hanelt). Das Kräuterbuch des Johannes Kentmann von 1563. Published by Thomas Bürger. With an essay by Hansjochen Hancke and botanical explanations by Marina Heilmeyer, Munich et al. 2004. Eggli, Urs; Wyder, Margrit; Nyffeler, Reto: Johannes Kentmann, Conrad Gessner und die Einführung des Feigenkaktus in Europa im 16. Jahrhundert, in: Bauhinia 27 (2018), pp. 47-59. Isphording, Eduard: Kräuter und Blumen. Botanische Bücher bis 1850 im Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg 2008 (digital: Kusukawa, Sachiko: Image, Text and Observatio: The Codex Kentmanus, in: Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009), p. 445-475.