Donated by Dr. Leslie Poste in 1980, Ioan. Damasceni is the third oldest book in Milne Library’s Special Collections at SUNY Geneseo. Published in Basel, Switzerland in 1539, this large Latin text is categorized by Milne Library as a religious text, specifically referred to as “Works.” It covers matters of the early church, theology, doctrines, and apologetics. Its title translates to, simply, John of Damascus, a main player in Christian doctrine.
This book was written by Saint John of Damascus, and, similarly to D. Hilarii Pictauorum, could not have been done so around the time of its publication in 1539, as Saint John lived centuries prior. In fact, the actual person(s) who compiled this text for print are unidentified anywhere in the text. While we know far less about the origins of this book than that of Sicuti Anitquarum Lectionum, we can draw the same general conclusion that the main motivation Dr. Poste likely had in donating this text to Milne Library likely had little to do with the actual specific content, and more so with the craft and uniqueness of a book published around 480 years ago. Located on the River Rhine, Basel is a city in northwestern Switzerland. Around the time of this book’s publication, Basel had joined the Swiss Confederation, and in 1529, some years prior to this publication of Ioan. Damasceni, adopted Protestantism as its national religion. This is an interesting note when considering the fact that this book is a Catholic text, and could indicate the city’s engagement in a complex theological conversation during this time in its history.
The title page of Ioan. Damasceni shows an illustration depicting a hand extending from the sky to smash the top of a large rock with a hammer while a face, also in the sky, blows a substance in the direction of this scene (Fig. 1). The context of this symbol is unrecognizable to me, so I can’t confidently comment any further on its meaning.
While an antiquarian bibliophile may be able to access this book online or even through other libraries, the copy given by Dr. Poste to Milne Library has its own unique qualities and characteristics that make it a worthwhile bibliographic specimen. Continue navigating this page to learn about the features specific to Milne Library’s copy of Ioan. Damasceni!
Unlike Sicuti Antiquarum Lectionum, there is a good chance that the binding on Ioan. Damasceni is, indeed original to its 1539 publication. While this may seem quite unlikely, given its age, as you may have learned through the additional bibliographic aspects of this site, the books made in the hand-press era were far more carefully made, and therefore much sturdier, than their mass-produced, modern counterparts. While the cover is still attached to the book, this binding is certainly more weakened than its D. Hilarii cousin (Fig. 2, Fig. 3, Fig. 4). Note the bottom stitching on the outer spine starting to peel away, and how the outer spine is starting to expose the strings sewing it to the pages. In Fig. 3, notice how spaced out the cover is getting from the title page, also demonstrated on the following page in Fig. 4. This book is definitely a bit more precarious in its
bound state than D. Hilarii.
Also note the, rather well intact, clasps attached to the outer edge of the front and back covers (Fig. 5). For more information about how and why clasps where used in 16th century binding, refer back to the page titled
As within Sicuti Antiquarum Lectionum, Ioan. Damasceni has notable marginalia. While the language in which the text is annotated is the same as in Sicuti, a mix of Latin and Italian, there is also a similarity in the
discrepancies in ink color: black and red (Fig. 6, Fig. 7).
While my own Italian and Latin is a bit rusty, I am at least able to appreciate the beauty of the notations, if not completely understand their meaning. What makes this particular text stand out as unique among all three is that its marginalia also includes occurrences of the manicule annotation (Fig. 8). This character is exactly how it appears, and serves the same easily assumed purpose: a hand drawn hand, pointing at a particularly noteworthy place in the text. According to Keith Houston, of Slate.com, this habit was particularly popular with Renaissance humanists; again, indicating the potentiality for an interesting theological conversation taking place in Basel at this time. Learn more about the manicule
Something present in this copy of Ioan. Damasceni that is not in the other two donations is the occurrence of these small metal tabs (Fig. 9). Rusted and sticky with time, these tabs are rather dangerous to the integrity of the pages they touch, almost tearing the pages, at times, when attempting to separate them, and leaving behind light brown residue where they came in contact with the surrounding paper. I’m unsure of their function, and can’t comment further on why they might be included in this particular text.
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All photos by Amanda Wentworth.