“It’s almost unthinkable what would be lost from the world if anything happened to this book”

11 Apr 2023

The University Library in Munich houses important works going back many centuries – some of them are so valuable they are kept in a vault. We present a selection of six books from the treasure trove.

Dr. Sven Kuttne crouching in front of a bookcase

Sven Kuttner in the former air-raid shelter beneath the University Library | © LMU

The University Library at LMU Munich is one of the largest university libraries in Germany. In the year 1473, when the university was still in Ingolstadt, work began on building up a library and creating catalogs. Today the University Library has some five-and-a-half million books and media in its collection. 167 of these books, the so-called cimelia, are so precious they are kept in a vault.

But this is not the only place where treasures are stored: many special volumes are housed in the former air-raid shelter beneath the University Library. For this reason, the atmosphere is supplied with a special mixture of helium and oxygen. And the temperature is maintained constantly between 17 and 18 degrees Celsius to protect the precious parchment and paper.

The collection ranges from manuscripts – some of them are over a thousand years old and decorated with gold leaf; others were created for frequent use such as the first German cookbook or early legal texts – to incunabula (works from the earliest days of printing), block books, old prints, and autographs, all the way through to first editions from the likes of Lion Feuchtwanger and Oskar Maria Graf.

Dr. Sven Kuttner, Head of Special Collections and Deputy Director of the University Library, presents a selection of special works that are unique worldwide. At the same time, he takes us on a journey through time which also shines a light on the history of LMU:

Evangeliary of Charlemagne

Opened book

The oldest book in the library’s stock: the Evangeliary of Charlemagne | © LMU

The Evangeliary – or Gospel Book – of Charlemagne is the oldest book in the library’s stock. It is thought to have been written at the end of the 9th century in the circle of the emperor’s Court School in Aachen and is one of the key works of Carolingian illumination.

How the book wound up in the library’s holdings is a big mystery, says Sven Kuttner: “Nobody knows how the Evangeliary came to LMU. It first shows up at the end of the 16th century in one of the catalogs of the university library in Ingolstadt.” The Evangeliary is incomplete, missing several leaves. Among the preserved 137 parchment sheets is the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark.

Despite being over 1,200 years old, the book is marvelously well preserved. “It seems that the binding was replaced at the end of the 16th century,” says Kuttner. “It was crafted by the so-called Ingolstadt Chaplet Master, a bookbinder who was known for this style of binding. That being said, they went for the budget version!” explains Kuttner with a chuckle. Only the spine and part of the binding were covered. The book covers are spartan by contrast. So their primary concern was that the book looked good on the shelf.

“It’s almost unthinkable what would be lost from the world if anything happened to this book,” says Sven Kuttner. Then he carefully closes the Evangeliary and locks it away in the vault, where it is kept safe under optimal conditions – and is very rarely taken out, such as when the University Library lends the book to a museum.

Lex Baiuvariorum

Person holding an opened book

Dating from around the year 800: the Lex Baiuvariorum | © LMU

Dating from around the year 800, about the same time as the Evangeliary of Charlemagne, the Lex Baiuvariorum is the oldest preserved manuscript of Bavarian tribal law. Sven Kuttner picks up a rather imposing book, or so it seems, because it is actually just a book box containing the actual treasure – a surprisingly small, slim volume. “When I say I’m getting the Lex Baiuvariorum, then people often expect me to come back lugging a hefty tome,” says Kuttner. “But in those days, people were understandably sparing in their use of parchment.”

The book entered the library’s holdings in the 17th century from the estate of the lawyer, ducal secretary, and registrar Christoph Gewold (1556-1621), whose library was acquired by Ingolstadt University Library in 1621. “Where Gewold himself got the book from, nobody knows,” says Kuttner. The book is among the most important preserved documents of the Bavarii people, and the laws set down in the Lex Baiuvariorum were in force up into the 12th century.

Würzburg-Ebrach Psalter from 1230

Person holding an opened book

The Würzburg-Ebrach Psalter, which was created around 1230. | © LMU

Among the most impressive books in the University Library’s vault is the Würzburg-Ebrach Psalter, which was created around 1230. The book is known for its whole-page miniatures and its twelve calendar panels. Containing the 150 psalms from the Old Testament, the texts are thought to have been committed to parchment with great care by Cistercian monks at Ebrach Abbey, supporting evidence for which is found in the style of the initials and the well-preserved, radiant colors.

“They’re classic natural colors,” explains Sven Kuttner. “The red was extracted from the kermes scale insect, while the greens and blues came from rocks and minerals such as lapis lazuli and malachite.” The gold leaf still gleams off the parchment today. “In almost 1,000 years, the book has lost none of its luster,” says the librarian as he carefully turns the pages. The work came into the possession of Ingolstadt University Library in 1573 as a bequest from the foundation of the Bishop of Augsburg Johann Egolph von Knöringen (1537-1575).

Nuremberg Koberger Bible from 1480

Opened book

First page of the Nuremberg Koberger Bible | © LMU

A massive tome weighing in at about five to six kilograms, the Nuremberg Koberger Bible of 1480 was the first book in the library’s possession. It is kept among the so-called incunabula – books from the early days of printing. “This book has a fascinating history,” says Sven Kuttner. And contained within the story of the book is the history of LMU, which was founded at Ingolstadt in 1472, moved to Landshut in 1800, and has had its home in Munich since 1826.

The bible was part of the original stock of Ingolstadt University Library, as can be ascertained from the coat of arms of the Artist’s Faculty, which depicts Saint Catherine with a sword and wagon wheel. “This coat of arms was drawn on almost all the first books in Ingolstadt from 1473 onward,” says Kuttner. “At some point, the Jesuits seem to have got their hands on the bible. With the dissolution of the Jesuit order in 1773, the book came back to Ingolstadt University Library and found its way from there to Munich via Landshut.”

One of the first bibles in the German language: the September Testament from 1522

Opened book

The September Testament from 1522 contains woodcuts from Lucas Cranach | © LMU

The University of Ingolstadt, from which LMU later emerged, was one of the hotbeds of the Counterreformation. As a paradoxical result of this, LMU has one of the largest collections of Reformation writings – and many precious works among them, including from the estate of Johann Eck, one of the leading opponents of Martin Luther. “At Ingolstadt, they engaged in enemy reconnaissance, as it were” explains Sven Kuttner – and takes out an edition of the first Luther bible translation, the September Testament of 1522, in which we can witness Johannes Eck coming to grips with Martin Luther.

This special bible contains woodcuts from Lucas Cranach, an artist who had a close relationship with Luther. In a sense, Cranach was Luther’s “house and court illustrator,” as Kuttner puts it. He shows us some of the illustrations – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the woodcut of a dragon with a papal tiara, a depiction of the Whore of Babylon, who is also wearing a papal crown.

“We have polemical anti-Roman imagery right there in the first Protestant texts. From the perspective of Wittenberg, there’s little doubt who the enemy is,” says Kuttner with a laugh as he leafs through the famous book.It is no wonder, then, that Luther’s antagonist Johannes Eck, who once owned the bible, annotated it with many of his own observations. Marginalia in Eck’s hand testify to his intensive engagement with the Protestant document. His notes and comments range from critiques of the translation and suggested improvements to more substantive objections. For the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the book was lent out to the Kunstpalast Museum in Düsseldorf for a major Cranach exhibition.

Waldseemüller Map


One of the most famous works housed in the University Library: the Waldseemüller Map | © LMU

One of the most famous works housed in the University Library is the Waldseemüller Map, which was discovered inside another book in 2012 – a chance find that caused a sensation and made international headlines.

Cartographer Martin Waldseemüller is sometimes called the “godfather of America.” Over 500 years ago, on a map measuring three square meters – which Angela Merkel presented to the United States in 2007 and is now kept in the Library of Congress in Washington – Waldseemüller wrote the name “America” to designate the newly discovered continent.

In addition to this large map, Waldseemüller also produced a smaller globe map, printed in separate sections called “gores”, of which there are only two other extant exemplars worldwide aside from the one in Munich.This gore map was concealed within an omnibus volume containing two works of geometry from the 16th century. It seems that the two early printed books were joined together in the 19th century. The Munich librarians of that time failed to recognize the significance of the Waldseemüller Map: the volume sank back into the obscurity of the storeroom for over 200 years and fortunately came through the evacuation during the Second World War unscathed.

The surprising find in the University Library in 2012 attracted a lot of media attention. “I’ll never forget the day,” says Sven Kuttner. “My colleague Elke Humml was working away on catalog corrections. When I came back from lunch, she was waiting for me with another colleague, Gerlinde Geiselmann, and said: “I’ve found something you should perhaps take a look at.”

Kuttner opened up the book and began to realize what it was he had in his hands. “For a moment, my heart really did stop beating,” he says. “I knew that if this thing was genuine, it would be a sensation. We started researching immediately.”

Asked whether he suspects other such findings might be lurking among the 20,000 or so special volumes in the air-raid shelter, Kuttner shakes his head. “It’s not very likely. Something like that happens once in a lifetime. I’d be happy for my successor to make the next discovery. I always say: a page from the Song of the Nibelungs would be nice.”

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