Three Dynasties, One Armorial: Cranachs, Wettins and Habsburgs in Manchester, John Rylands Library, German MS. 2

Arms of the elector of Saxony (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 101 © University of Manchester).

Manchester’s John Rylands Library is the custodian of a high-quality sixteenth-century German armorial (available online) which has only recently been studied in detail for the first time. In an article for the latest issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library1 I have advanced three main hypotheses concerning the genesis of German MS. 2 (henceforth Rylands German 2): that it was produced in 1565 in the renowned Wittenberg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger for Elector August of Saxony; that this 1565 armorial was a copy of an older armorial dating from c.1500, a member of the south German armorial tradition which Steen Clemmensen has christened the ‘Bodensee group’; and that this older armorial was closely connected to the Habsburg dynasty, and in particular to Emperor Maximilian’s second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. This blog post presents a summary of my findings, which I hope will stimulate further discussion of this important and intriguing manuscript.

Arms of the four churches and four pillars of the Empire (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 40 © University of Manchester).

In 1565 Elector August of Saxony (1526–86) commissioned from Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86) a copy of an ‘old armorial’ which Cranach had inherited from his father, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). This armorial was almost certainly being used in the Cranachs’ workshop as reference material. August was initially interested in an unspecified matter of Saxon heraldry, but he requested a ‘true copy’ of the complete armorial, plus any further coats of arms known to Cranach. In several letters to Cranach, August gave detailed instructions for the making of this copy, enabling us to identify Rylands German 2 as the copy made by Cranach’s workshop.

The Society of the Ibex
(John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 259
© University of Manchester).

The binding of Rylands German 2 is consistent with this identification: the rolled, stamped and gilded white leather of the covers (typical of sixteenth-century Wittenberg) is marked with the date 1565 and the initials of the bookbinder Paul Thiele, who was working in Wittenberg between the 1550s and 1575. Internally, the structure, layout and labelling of the heraldic material correspond exactly with August’s instructions, and the main depiction of the Saxon electoral arms is especially lavish. A section which commences with this coat of arms was sent to August before the rest of the copy was complete, and the break in the copying process that this caused is still visible in the manuscript’s physical structure. Furthermore, we can identify at least some of the coats of arms which were added in the Cranach workshop and which are related to woodcuts and other heraldic artwork produced by both Cranachs.

Arms of Emperor Frederick III, including the proverb ‘rerum irecuperabilium summa felicitas est oblivio’ (‘what cannot be undone is best forgotten’) (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 21 © University of Manchester).

The bulk of the manuscript’s content is clearly older than these additions, however. The coats of arms of identifiable individuals in Rylands German 2 refer to people who were all living only in 1499 or 1500. Equally unmistakeable are the classic features of the ‘Bodensee’ armorial tradition: Ternionen such as the Three Oldest Arms and the Nine Worthies, and an impressive set of Quaternionen. The Holy Roman Empire is also represented as a series of regional or territorial communities in the main body of the armorial. Within each geographical or geopolitical group the arms are arranged hierarchically, but some of these groups represent or feature associations or societies of (mostly) lower nobles. In all of these aspects, Rylands German 2 shows particular affinities with the famous Grünenberg armorial of c.1485.

Swabian nobles, including the insignia of the Societies of the Fish and the Falcon and the Talbot and Wreath (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 216 © University of Manchester).

But the noble societies are not nearly as prominent in Rylands German 2 as in Grünenberg or indeed the earlier Ingeram. Many have been subsumed into the regions with which they were associated, most strikingly in the case of the Swabian societies of the Fish and Falcon and the Talbot and Wreath: these societies were presented as large organizations in Grünenberg, but feature in Rylands German 2 only as insignia beside the arms of a single leading society member within a ‘Swabian’ section headed by the duke of Württemberg. Alongside Swabia we find Bavaria, Franconia and the Rhineland: the traditional ‘Four Lands’ of Upper Germany. But for the Rhineland the compiler(s) broke with the pattern of placing a prince at the head of each region, and arranged its nobility in societies alone (Donkey, Wolf, Greyhound and Ibex). In northern Germany and Tyrol the groups of nobles are more clearly territorial, and the section for Saxony represents a very capacious interpretation of a ‘Saxon’ nobility. This section may well have been expanded by Cranach in his copy for Elector August.

The herald Romreich (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 77 © University of Manchester).

We can begin to understand why the nobility of the Empire is presented in this way by considering not only Cranach’s possible additions but also the evidence for the context of the original armorial’s production. The Habsburg dynasty is naturally prominent in many German armorials of this period, but Rylands German 2 displays a special connection to the house of Austria through features including a proverb closely associated with Emperor Frederick III (1415–93) and a picture of the imperial herald Romreich, which could indicate that Bernhard Sittich, who held the office of Romreich herald in 1499/1500, was responsible for compiling the original armorial. Frederick’s son Maximilian (1459–1519) is also represented, but the real focal point of the armorial is Maximilian’s second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan.

Arms of Bianca Maria Sforza (full page)
Arms of Bianca Maria Sforza (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 1 © University of Manchester).

Bianca Maria’s arms fill the first page of the Cranach copy, and there is good reason to think that she was at the heart of the original armorial too, as her arms are followed by those of thirty-nine princely ladies of the Empire. This unusual collection of women’s arms depicts individuals living in 1499/1500, and is thus both an integral part of the original material and a clear statement of Bianca Maria’s status as the highest ranking woman in the Empire. This section’s presentation in Rylands German 2 suggests that Bianca Maria is the head of a separate ‘province’, a parallel Empire of women, expressing her position in society in ways which certainly call for further investigation.

Arms of princely ladies of the Holy Roman Empire (first page of four) (John Rylands Library, German MS. 2, p. 2 © University of Manchester).

Rylands German 2 thus offers insights into a sixteenth-century prince’s heraldic interests and artistic patronage; an artist’s use of heraldic materials in his workshop; the south German armorial tradition of the fifteenth century; and the heraldic and artistic programme of the Habsburg court in the reign of Maximilian. It depicts an Empire of regions dominated by certain princes. These regions were interpreted as ‘territories’ by Elector August, who ordered Cranach to copy the arms of each prince followed by those of the noble families which were ‘incorporated’ into that prince’s territory. But the concept of the original armorial was perhaps one of many regional communities connected through the princes to the imperial centre. At this centre we find, surprisingly, not Maximilian, but his often overlooked second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. This gives cause to reappraise not only her queenship, but also the wider relationship between women and heraldry in the later Middle Ages.

Cite this blog post
Ben Pope (2019, February 6). Three Dynasties, One Armorial: Cranachs, Wettins and Habsburgs in Manchester, John Rylands Library, German MS. 2. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

  1. Ben Pope, ‘The Empress, the Elector and the Painter: The Armorial of Bianca Maria Sforza, Copied for August of Saxony by Lucas Cranach the Younger (Manchester, John Rylands Library, German MS. 2)‘, in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 94.2 (2018), pp. 1–49. []

Ben Pope

Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tübingen

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