Perhaps one of the best surviving examples of a liturgical gradual from the early 1500’s, The Geese Book, as it is commonly called, has been a shining star for historical scholars. Created for the Lutheran parish of St. Lorenz (St. Lawrence) in Nuremberg, Germany, the gradual was completed in 1510 and used until the Reformation in 1525. Along with the mass liturgies, The Geese Book includes colophons and illuminations which enlighten modern scholars to the time period in which the book was created and used.
Colophons are the closing remarks of a gradual. It was through these colophons that the writers communicated directly with the readers and audience. Often, they were used to give credit to those who not only worked on the project, but individuals who donated or helped finance the gradual and clerics who commissioned the work. It is interesting to note that individuals did not want their names included out of self-driven ambition, but rather for pious reasons. It was common in the colophons for the writer to ask the readers to pray for the souls of those listed, so that they may be more easily accepted into Heaven due to their pious works on Earth. Sometimes the writer would leave their own name out of the list to be prayed for in an act of humility. However, they would still include their name in the credits, therefore assuring they would be prayed for.
Aside from the colophons, The Geese Book is particularly known for its vibrant illuminations. These are colorful illustrations along the sides and bottom of the pages, executed with rich detail and precise strokes. Though not credited in the colophons, the illuminations are almost universally agreed upon by scholars to be the work of Jakob Elsner. The illuminations are in great detail, especially when compared to the The Geese Book’s predecessor. The Geese Book, on the other hand, included not only familiar Biblical scenes illustrated along with the liturgies, but full and detailed backdrops including architecture, which makes it stand apart from its peers. On another note, The Geese Book is known for its whimsical drawings, as well.
Most noted of those whimsical drawings – and the reason the book is called The Geese Book – is the interesting choir of the geese found at the bottom of the liturgy for the Vigil of the Ascension. It is in that illumination where the reader is greeted by a wolf leading the choir of geese in song. Behind the geese, a fox has joined them and is reaching a paw toward one of the geese. With little known about Elsner’s life, it is difficult to say what this could mean. The wolf is wearing a purple stole, which is the color the pastor would wear during the Vigil of the Ascension in the Lutheran church. It can be assumed that the wolf represents the pastor or perhaps the Lutheran church as a whole. Geese often symbolize prudence and are following the lead of the wolf, or church. The fox, however, may represent some negative intrusion. Perhaps this was Elsner’s way of portraying outside influence upon the church.
No matter what Elsner intended, it is clear he was imaginative and creative. His illuminations are what sets The Geese Book apart from its peers, despite his absence from the colophons. It is a lucky thing to have been preserved as well as it has been. While the illuminations may seem random at first glance, further inspection will reveal these images to be rife with social commentary, such as the choir of the geese. Though not much is known about Elsner, it is due to his artistic ability that The Geese Book is held in as high of regard as it is today among scholarly circles.