Page from Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health)


Page from Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health)


Artist unknown
German, 15th century
Published in 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach
German, active c. 1490–95




The Hortus sanitatis, or Garden of Health, was the last of three important medical incunabula—books issued before 1501with typographical text, rather than in manuscript—that appeared in the German city of Mainz during the waning years of the fifteenth century. The Latin Herbarius and the German Herbarius, dated 1484 and 1485 respectively, were compilations of earlier knowledge regarding curative plants, in some instances reaching as far back as Aristotle. The Hortus sanitatis, published by Jacob Meydenbach in 1491, followed suit—the first half of the text is essentially an expanded version of the German Herbarius—but then went on to include additional commentary on animals, birds, fish, rocks and minerals, and, well, urine. With 454 leaves and 1066 illustrations, it was by far the most substantial, and perhaps the most important, medicine book of its time.

This page features three entries from the section on birds. In the upper left, the pelican (onocroculus) is described (its accompanying illustration would have been found on the previous page). In the lower right, two birds are discussed: the oriole (oriolus), depicted attending its nest in the woodcut, and the corn crake (ortigometra), a quail-like bird whose unmistakable attitude in flight, with its legs dangling behind, most certainly would have been observed by the designer of the image here. Sandwiched between these chapters is the hopping, serpent menacing opimachus, a winged creature born of the classical imagination. From the description we can gather that the chronicler followed the ancient conflation of the locus-like insect mentioned in Leviticus 22:11—in the Vulgate denominated ophiomachus; literally, snake fighter—and the mongoose, whose ability to fend off vipers was legendary.

Object inscriptions: bottom left: Hortus Sanitatis Maydenbach 1491


Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, Gift of Jim Goodfriend in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Milton J. Goodfriend




This image is posted publicly for non-profit educational uses, excluding printed publication. Other uses are not permitted.


Woodcuts with typographic text; plate: 9-1/16 x 5-1/2 in. (23 x 14 cm), sheet: 12-1/8 x 8-5/16 in. (30.7 x 21.1 cm)