The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book

By Sylvie Neven

During the mediaeval and early modern periods, artisanal knowledge was notably transmitted in collections of recipes, of which hundreds of examples exist in addition to the well-known ones–such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus (ca. D 1100)[i] or Il libro dell’arte of Cennino Cennini (ca. 1390)[ii]. The so-called Strasbourg Manuscript is a well-known example of this type of artistic literature. This artist’s recipe book, whose content has been dated to the beginning of the early fifteenth century, is believed to be the oldest German-language source for the study of Northern European painting techniques.

The art-technological instructions of the Strasbourg Manuscript cover a wide range of crafts. They are mostly dedicated to painting and illuminating and, in particular, to the preparation of pigments (refining, grinding, suitable mixing, building up of layers of paint, and using gold or its imitation in gilding). Some recipes concern the manufacture of specific binding agents, glues and varnishes to be used on various artistic supports. Others correspond to instructions for auxiliary crafts such as polychromy and mural painting, dyeing of textiles and skins, the preparation and the colouring of the parchment support, or the working of metal.

Unfortunately, the Strasbourg Library Ms. A VI 19, in which these technological instructions were originally preserved, was destroyed during the 1870 fire in the Strasbourg Library. By chance, a few decades before, a copy of the recipe book was made for Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the London National Gallery. This was partly published in 1847. The two later main editions of the text are based solely on this transcription[iii].

Since its discovery, the text of the Strasbourg Manuscript has been frequently cited by scholars and has been renowned for being the Nordic counterpart of the famous Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. Numerous studies have referred to its technical content within the context of analytical reconstructions or for the purposes of artistic attributions. However, the previous editions of the recipe book – on which these studies relied – contained many divergences and contradictions. No one has raised the question of the reliability of the nineteenth copy, nor questioned the degree of similarity between this document and the mediaeval recipe book. A few years ago, examination of the modern transcription led me to suspect that its accuracy is questionable; closer reading of the artistic recipes of the Strasbourg Manuscript highlighted anomalies within the text.

To favour the current use of the Strasbourg recipe book and to counteract the lack of the original text, I have proposed a new revised edition and translation, based on the modern copy, the two editions and other historical witnesses of the text[iv].

As with many mediaeval and early modern recipe books, the Strasbourg Manuscript was the result of copying and compiling various sources. Its content appears in other contemporary recipe books and persists in treatises such as the edition of the Valentin Boltz von Ruffach’s Illuminierbuch (1549). The manuscripts related to this tradition mainly originated from the South of Germany and North of France. Within this textual and technical ‘Tradition’, the Strasbourg Manuscript is the oldest surviving example[v].

The new edition of the Strasbourg Manuscript allows an overview of the current structure of this recipe book, which has had several amendments and loss of physical material. It aims to determine the location of corrected or amended errors or lacuna in the nineteenth copy, thus offering an opportunity to reconstruct the text of the lost manuscript. The conclusion? The text of the Strasbourg Manuscript is a result of contributions from textual and oral sources.

The systematic comparison of all the witnesses of this tradition of artists’ recipe books, taking into account the inherent characteristics of these writings (historical, codicological, textual and technological), has also been exploited for diverse purposes–which I will discuss in future posts.

Within the witnesses of this tradition, the Strasbourg recipe book has not been copied word-for-word. It has been subject to additions, elisions and corrections. Studying the textual modifications during its spread and interpretation of its variations or errors across provides a deeper understanding of the historical context for its production. It has also suggested the ways in which these sorts of recipe books were handled by their many scribes and owners.

Finally, comparative analysis of all the witnesses to this textual and technical tradition clearly signals their analogies and divergences, which are meaningful in terms of the original function and use(s) of these texts. This kind of observation, and the conclusions that can be made from them, allow for a better assessment of the relevance of artists’ recipe books within the framework of historical artistic practices.


[i] Dodwell, C.R., Theophilus, De diversis artibus. The various arts. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and notes, London, 1961 ; Hawthorne, J.G. and Smith, C.S., De Diversis Artibus of Theophilus, Chicago, 1963, 1979 (edition and English translation). See also BREPOHL, E., Theophilus Presbyter und das Mittelalterliche Kunsthandwerk, 2 volumes (1. Malerei und Glass ; 2. GoldschmiedeKunst), Cologne-Vienna, 1999 (edition and German traduction).

[ii] Thompson, D. V., Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa. Il Libro dell’arte, New Haven, 1932 ; Brunello, F., Cennino Cennini, il libro dell’arte, commentato e annotato da Franco Brunello, Vicense, 1982 ; Deroche, C., Il libro dell’Arte, traduction critique, commentaires et notes, Paris, 1991.

[iii] Berger, E., Quellen und Technik der Fresko-, Öl- und TemparaMalerei des Mittelalters von der byzantinischen Zeit bis einschliesslich der Erfindung der Ölmalerei durch die Brüder van Eyck, 3 (Beiträge zur Entwickelungs-Geschichte der Maltechnik), Munich, 1897, pp. 154-175 ; Borradaile V. and R., The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Painter’s Handbook translated from the old german, Londres, 1966.

[iv] Neven, Sylvie, Les recettes artistiques du Manuscrit de Strasbourg et leur tradition dans les réceptaires allemands des XVe et XVIe siècles (Étude historique, édition, traduction et commentaires technologiques), thèse de doctorat en histoire, art et archéologie, Université de Liège, janvier 2011.

[v] A new philological analysis of Eastlake’s transcription has allowed a more precise date to be suggested. Orthographical features and connections with some archival documents from the Strasbourg Chancellery and documents of the painters’ guild regulations allow us to propose a date of ca. 1400.

Cite this blog post
sylvieneven (2012, November 1). The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book. The Recipes Project. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

6 thoughts on “The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book”

  1. What a fascinating research topic! The Strasbourg Manuscript could be of great interest for my own research on early modern medicine and alchemy – are you aware of any literature on these aspects of the Strasbourg MS?

    Many thanks,

  2. Bonjour,

    Peintre spécialisé dans la reconstitution des techniques anciennes, je possède déjà deux éditions du Ms Strasbourg : celle d’ Ernst Berger et celle de Rosamund et Viola Borradaile.
    Bien que celles-ci me soient d’une grande utilité, j’avoue que je suis parfois restée sceptique devant la traduction de certains détails. Comme vous le faites justement remarquer le manuscrit possède également des lacunes.
    Comment par exemple pourrait-on obtenir une écriture d’or alors que les deux seuls ingrédients mentionnés sont gumi arab. et weissen essig (Berger 17)?
    Dans ce cas il ne semble pas bien difficile de compléter mais les options ne sont pas toujours aussi évidentes : La recette 18 (Berger) peut-elle être rapprochée malgré l’éloignement géographique de la recette 60 (Merrifield) du manuscrit de Padoue ou s’agit-il uniquement d’imiter l’or avec l’ocre? etc..
    Beaucoup de questions se posent pour quelqu’un qui, de plus, ne maîtrise pas franchement l’alsacien du moyen-âge…
    J’ai donc pris connaissance de votre thèse avec grand enthousiasme. Il manquait vraiment un travail de fond sur ce manuscrit et les correspondances qu’il entretient avec d’autres écrits.
    Ma dernière et principale question sera donc : où trouver votre édition?


  3. Bonjour Eléonore,

    Merci pour votre message. En effet, bon nombre de recettes du Manuscrit de Strasbourg doivent être éclairées par d’autres réceptaires anciens, véhiculant des procédés analogues. Ce travail est celui qui j’ai accompli dans le cadre de ma thèse de doctorat. Ce faisant, j’ai réalisé une nouvelle édition du texte en allemand et en français. Actuellement je travaille à la publication de cette édition en anglais, qui devrait paraître l’année prochaine.
    Au sujet de la recette que vous décrivez (Berger 17), celle-ci apparaît dans plusieurs autres livres de recettes de cette époque, avec un énoncé très analogue. En réalité, la préparation décrite doit servir de glacis qui, apposé sur la surface dorée, va en rehausser la brillance et lui donner une teinte plus chaude et un aspect moins métallique, afin de « le faire ressembler encore plus à de l’or ».

    N’hésitez pas à me contacter si souhaiter davantage d’information à ce sujet ( Bien cordialement, Sylvie

  4. Thank you for your message!Actually the original Strasbourg Manuscript (Strasbourg Library, Ms A VI 19) did contain some medical texts, but ‘only’ the artist recipe book (copied in the 19th century) has survived. However, a huge number of manuscripts including artist recipe book are presented as compilations, which may concurrently address various fields such as medicine, cooking, alchemy, botany or astronomy. They also include magical recipes, dietetical instructions, historical books or calendars.A part of my PhD research was dedicated to that aspect. So, do not hesitate to contact me if you have any specific question! All best, Sylvie

  5. Thanks very much for your reply! Do you have a list of manuscript collections from the Strasbourg area you have consulted? This would be hugely helpful for my own PhD project (which I am only beginning to plan). I’d be very interested to read your thesis, especially the part concerning medicine and alchemy – has it been published yet?
    Merci bien,

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