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NLM Exhibition, The Cradle-Books: Illustrated Incunabula, Showcases Treasures from the Infancy of Printing

The National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library and component of the National Institutes of Health, announces a new exhibition featuring nine of its illustrated incunabula or "cradle-books," as rare-book librarians sometimes call these volumes. It will be on view in Building 38, on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of NIH, through June 18. The books range in subject matter from early hand-colored herbals and astrological charts to manuals on how to treat the plague and venereal diseases.

Incunabula are books printed in Europe using movable metal type from its invention in about 1455 until 1500. In Latin, "incunabula" means "swaddling clothes" or "cradle," and rare book librarians and historians have long used the term to refer to these books from the infancy of printing. Of the Library's 580 incunabula, about 70 of them are illustrated with woodcuts, many of them considered to be some of the greatest printed artwork of the age.

The exhibition includes NLM's copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle, the largest incunable in its collection, measuring nearly 20 inches in height. The Chronicle is a history of the world beginning with the Garden of Eden and extending to the medieval period; it was written by the physician Hartmann Schedel and printed in 1493. It is known for its beautiful woodcuts depicting panoramas of famous cities, portraits of famous rulers and thinkers, and important historical events. Illustrators include the noted Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer and Michael Wolgemut.

Also on display is the Library's hand-colored copy of the Gart der Gesundheit (Mainz, 1485), or "Garden of Health," the first herbal printed in a vernacular language (German), rather than Latin or Greek. As with many early herbals, the author and artist are unknown, but its printer was Peter Schoeffer, who assisted as an apprentice in composing the type for the Gutenberg Bible some thirty years earlier.

Other works in the exhibition include a uniquely held copy of Anianus' Computus cum Commento (Lyon, 1492), a manual for calculating the dates of Lent and Easter using the hands as a mnemonic device, and a copy of Hieronymus Brünschwig's Liber Pestilentialis de Venenis Epidimie, printed in Strassbourg in 1500.

The exhibition is on display in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room, on the first floor of Building 38, from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays. For more information, please contact the curator of the exhibition, Michael North, Head, Rare Books & Early Manuscripts, at northm@mail.nih.gov, or the History of Medicine Division Reading Room at 301.402.8878.

A hand colored woodcut of the zodiac constellation Sagittarius from Johannes Angelus

A hand colored woodcut of the zodiac constellation Sagittarius from: Johannes Angelus, Astrolabium Planum (Augsburg: Erhardt Ratdolt, 1488).

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