Floral decoration of the kind seen here and in the Hebrew Pentateuch (MS. Canon. Or. 62) is typical of a Ferrara school of illumination. The historiated initial E (a letter containing a scene or figures) illustrates the text of 1 Kings 1–4: King David was so cold in his old age that young Abishag was procured to keep him warm, “but the king knew her not.” This Latin prayer book was intended for clerical and monastic use.
This manuscript, meant for synagogue use, comprises the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Rashi’s commentary, and additional readings. Most remarkable is the medallion at bottom, with an image of a unicorn resting in the lap of a virgin. It decorates the first page of the book of Genesis, together with Adam and Eve, who are portrayed as sinners bringing death upon the world. The images are Christian in their symbolism, alluding to the Incarnation and the New Creation: Christ is the unicorn and the second Adam; Mary is the virgin and the new Eve.
Books of Hours, popular in the Middle Ages, are private prayer books. They are named for the central text, the Hours of the Virgin—readings recited at each of the eight canonical hours of the day. They are often decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin and Christ, as in this example in Dutch. Below the text at right is a scene of the unicorn and the virgin, a medieval allegory of the Incarnation of Christ. At left the Holy Family flees to Egypt after Herod orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants (Matthew 2:13–23).
The "Book of Fate," written in Italian, was used for fortune telling by the casting of dice. It is open to a table with eighteen answers, headed by an illustration. The image shows a hunter spearing a unicorn as it rests in the lap of a virgin.
The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century caused a revolution in the accessibility of texts and the spread of knowledge. Early printers often made their books look like manuscripts. In this luxurious printed Hebrew Bible the decoration has been painted by hand. The same border appears in reverse in "Aquila Volante," an Italian book. Jewish printers often borrowed woodcut borders from Christian printers.
This work in Italian is a synthesis of world history viewed as if by an "aquila volante," an eagle in flight. It is full of quotations from Dante’s "Divine Comedy," fabulous and fantastic stories, medieval legends, and prophecies. The printer of the Holkham Hebrew Bible used the woodcut border seen here for his own title page, but reversed it to accommodate the right-to-left direction of Hebrew.