Manesse Codex

The Codex Manesse or Grosse

by Lady Alianore de Essewell

Heidelberger Liederhandschrift was written in the early 14th century and is the most famous German Illuminated Manuscript of the Middle Ages. Written in Middle High German, it is the single most comprehensive collection of courtly lyric poetry or Minnesang of the gothic era, a poetic style carried by the knighthood.

The term for these poets is Minnesanger a combination of the words minne [romantic] and sanger [song], as in those times, these poems were mostly presented in the form of a song. Representing the work of 140 poets from the 12th to 14th centuries, several of whom were famous rulers, the codex was the work of at least 4 illuminators and a dozen scribes over a 35 year period. In 1929 the Insel-Vertag publishing Co prepared an edition of the Manesse, which included a scientific study of the Codex. We now know that this Manessiscriftic famous Codex [as Goethe called it [ref 1]] is very close to the collection of the Zurich Manesses. The Knight Rudeger Manesse [died 1304] and his son Johannes Manesse, were the collectors of the foundation songs and pictures. It has been supposed that the Minnesanger Johannes Hadloub (died 1340), who is also represented in the codex was responsible for furthering the collection at the request of the Manesse Family and the leading Patriarchs of Zurich after the death of Rudeger Manesse.

There are 137 full-page miniatures, including 1 pen and ink drawing. The designs were first drawn on the grounded parchment with black ink, and then the painters evenly applied the colors and gold leaf. This process can be seen in the one unpainted image in the codex as well as in the other unfinished illuminations. These miniatures depict each poet in the Codex, giving us his name and rank and representing them in an idealized form of battle or courtly activity. The entries of the codex are ordered in sequence by the rank or social status of the poets, beginning with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, then Kings, Dukes, Counts, Knights and commoners.

The Codex Manesse was completed in two sections, the main illustrator of the earlier pages has been identified as the Foundation Master [die Grundstock an]. He is credited with 110 of the miniatures by the use of similar styled borders of blue, red and gold. Typical of the Foundation Master are his figures, drawn in accord of the late High Gothic ideal of beauty, with their slim features and archetypal faces shown in three-quarter profile, surrounded by golden locks. His borders consist of simple geometrical design, double or triple framing in blue, red and gold and his use of unmixed, powerful colors have lost none of their brilliance over time, with vermilion, blue, green and gold dominating the palate. 

There is then a change in the miniatures towards the completion of the manuscript and therefore credited to at least three other illustrators. Though they contain the same main elements of the earlier pages they are painted with pastel colours and are illustrated with party colour clothes and have floral or architectural borders. Also, their placement in the Codex was done after the completion of the main book, as these new pages were inserted to maintain the rank order of the Minnesangers. 

The miniatures of the Codex Manesse differ from other contemporary manuscripts in that the classic authors’ portrait is not used. Generally, figural portraits were depicted in devotion to god, which limited the expressiveness of the subject. The miniaturists of the Manesse however did not limit themselves to this convention, showing them as armed knights fighting, their faces concealed by crested helms, hunting or enjoying courtly entertainments with the ladies they adored, playing games or in fond embrace.

The painter’s use of details to describe the Minnesingers had rarely anything to do with their living conditions. They use the typical culture of a noble and ideal style to theme their pictures, often connecting it to what the minnesinger is saying in his song. Also, many depict a coat of arms and crested helm, however since the manuscript was compiled up to 100 years after the death of some poets the heraldry for most cannot be regarded as authentic. For the Foundation Master however, they were as important to him as the minnesingers name and he uses their name in depicted imagery upon the shield and helms crest [ref 2] or else they have been left undone. 

“High Minne” is not the same as love, it is romantic love, a form of love that en-nobles the knight and is not dependant on the fulfillment of physical love and therefore as in this period is full of symbols. These symbols are used throughout the codex, scepter, sword, crested helm, shield, banner, scroll, rose tree, dog, floral crown and some have no shield or helm at all but all have meaning. A strong social structure is also represented throughout the Codex, with some figures being drawn less proportionate to the main images. These figures represent their status, being less important than the main figures, such as servants being drawn smaller than the lord and lady. Also, some objects were drawn larger in order to bring emphasis to them, such as the chess set pictured left, to show who’s winning. 

(Ref 3) Another point of interest to be found in the Manesse miniatures is that the fish portrayed are true to life images of those found. These fish pictured right are pike, carp, eel and barsche (barsche – untranslated from gothic German).


  • Codices Illustres; The world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts 400 to 1600
    Ingo F. Walter, Norbert Wolf
    Taschen 2001
    ISBN 3-8228-5852-8
    In the Library of Mistress Branwen of Werchervorde
  • Die Minnesinger in Bilbern der manessischen Handschrift
    Hans Naumann
    Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig 1945
    Kindly translated into English by Frau Millar
    German Language teacher: Baldivis Primary School
    In the Library of Alienor of Essewell
  • Die Minnesinger in Bilbern II der manessischen Handschrift
    Hans Naumann
    Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig 1945
    Kindly translated into English by Frau Millar
    German Language teacher: Baldivis Primary School
    In the Library of Alienor of Essewell
  • Codex Manesse;
    Wikipedia encyclopedia:
  • University of Heidelberg
    permission to use pictures granted
  • Ref 1 “Manessiscriftic famous Codex”
    From Die Minnesinger in Bilbern book 450 pg 32
  • Ref 2 Examples:
    Herr Reinmar der Fiedler (fiddle) – depicted playing a fiddle, with fiddle on shield and helm.
    Herr Dietmar von Ast (ass) – depicted riding an ass or mule.
  • Ref 3 From Die Minnesinger in Bilbern book 560 pg 34

Illumination in the style of the Codex Manesse

I started by pre-designing my illumination, examining the miniatures of the Codex Manesse and writing down what common elements were used throughout the manuscript that I also wanted to use.

I then drew a short-hand design of what I wanted it to look like. There are two very different themes within the Codex, the first theme includes the scenes of battle or of knights in tournament, the other theme is of more courtly activities. My preference is for the second and I have chosen to base my design on one of courtly love.

I chose several recurring elements from the miniatures of the codex to create an individually unique illumination, an extension of the codex rather than copy. The elements I chose included the type of border, architecture, clothes and symbols. I have chosen to base my illumination on the earlier works of the foundation master, choosing one of his stylized geometric borders.

My illumination is representative of the Manesse, rich in its symbolism. The knight and his lady are man and wife, her turret hat and barbette a status of marriage. She offering him the goblet (a drink shared), symbol of requited love. Him offering her the rose and the rose tree, a symbol of their love in bloom. The small possessive dog a symbol of her fidelity, the banner, a symbol of heraldic nobility and the musicians to play the minnesingers song.

I drafted those ideas onto my parchment page, using a measured rule to divide the page. I have chosen to do my illumination full scale to the originals to get a better idea of the working scale and therefore my page is 355mm by 250mm with the actual illumination being 256mm by 180mm in dimensions. I used a ruler to draw in the border and other straight lines of my illumination and then in freehand drew the other images, trying to maintain the same scale throughout.

Codex ManesseThe first draft was done in pencil allowing for mistakes to be easily rubbed out and changes made. I made changes to the architecture, as originally I wanted three arches but changed it to two in order to maintain image scale. I also amended other areas that didn’t look right to what I was hoping to achieve and rearranged others before adding two more people in the form of musicians to serenade the courting couple.

Once satisfied with the design I started on the gilding before outlining in ink. I started the gilding first as inking in is still a skill I am yet to get right. I have used transfer gold for my gilding work. I first brushed glue onto the places I wanted gold, waiting and then heating the spot with warm breath to activate the tackiness required, for the gold to adhere. I used firm strokes to place the gold before burnishing with a smooth agate stone. After gilding I inked in certain areas.

I have used Windsor and Newton gouache paints for my colour palette in the hope of achieving the same dynamic colouring as found in the original Codex. The primary colours used in my design are Cadmium red deep, primary red, Ultramarine, Sap Green, Zinc White, Ivory black, Yellow Ochre, Primary yellow, Raw sienna and colour mixes in order to achieved the desired results.

Starting with one colour at a time I worked my way around the illumination using a loaded brush technique, filling the brush and using surface tension to pull the paint across the surface. Then using a darker shade of the one used highlighted the lines to give certain of the images definition. The face colour was done with a paint wash technique, painting on the colour and then having water on the brush painted it off, cleaning the brush between each stroke to achieve the desired look.

Once completing the main painting to my original thoughts, I altered some of the design, changing and adding different elements and colours to the picture to achieve what I wanted to represent in my Manesse Style Illumination. I have also added my heraldry to the illumination in an effort to give it personal meaning to me. For the last part I have re-inked some of the outlines and put in the faces of my people.