994G Ludolphus de Saxonia                d. 1378

Vita Christi.  

[Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 20 December, 1478]        $35,000

Large Folio 17 ½  x 12 ½ inches.  [a-m8n6 o-z8r6;A-Z8]


371 of 372 leaves, lacking folio 294. 60 lines plus headline, printed in gothic letter, double columns throughout.   A large initial letter F on the first leaf illuminated in red and blue with ornamental penwork.   Two other large initials in red and blue, and smaller initials and paragraph marks in red and blue throughout.

DSC_0176Bound in full contemporary German blind-stamped pigskin over wooden boards. Bosses and clasps are lacking, the binding is somewhat wormed and worn, with a piece missing from the upper inner blank margin of the first eight leaves. This is a tall copy, on lovely thick paper. The pastedowns are from a twelfth century German liturgical manuscript. An early ownership inscription appears on the first page

“Ex libris R[everen] dae Fraternitatis Sacerdotem Gamundiae.” 


This is the third  printed edition, the first edition was printed in Strassburg in 1474.

The Vita Christi is the principal work of Ludolph the Carthusian, and one of the most popular books of its time. Numerous manuscript versions of the work are extant, and over twenty different editions were produced before 1501. The work “is not a simple biography […] but at once a history, a commentary borrowed from the Fathers, a series of dogmatic and moral dissertations, of spiritual instructions, meditations, and prayers, in relation to the life of Christ. […] It has been called a ‘summa evangelica’ […] in which the author has condensed and resumed all that over sixty writers had said before him upon spiritual matters.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

BMC II 417; Goff L-339; Hain 10292; IGI 5872; Proctor 1990.

(Catholic Univ,  Columbia University  (II),LC(I)
Southern Methodist Univ., PL of Cincinnati)


The Vita Christi had significant influence on the development of techniques for Christian meditation. Although Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167) had introduced the concept of immersing and projecting oneself into a Biblical scene in his De institutione inclusarum, and St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) had borrowed heavily from that work in his Lignum Vitae,  Ludolph’s massive work (which quoted Aelred extensively but credited his work to Anselm) helped to spread this devotional practice into the Devotio Moderna community and to Ignatius of Loyola (as discussed below). The Vita Christi was translated into Spanish in 1502 by Ambrosio Montesino and was printed in Alcala.  The methods of meditation in the Vita Christi thus entered Spain and were known in the early part of the 16th century.[8] St Teresa and St Francis de Sales frequently quote from it.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola used these techniques in his Spiritual exercises, e.g. self-projection into a Biblical scene to start a conversation with Christ in Calvary.  Ludolph’s Vita Christi is mentioned in almost every biography of St Ignatius of Loyola. St Ignatius read it whilst recovering from the cannon-ball wound after the siege of Pamplona in a Castilian translation.  Ludolph proposes a method of prayer which asks the reader to visualise the events of Christ’s life (known as simple contemplation).  In his commentary on the Gospel for the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalen, the story where Mary the sister of Lazarus, comes into the house of the Pharisee where Jesus is eating, and washes his feet with her tears and then dries his feet with her hair, Ludolph repeatedly urges the reader to see (that is, visualise) the scene of the washing, and so on. He also has insights into the humanity and attractiveness of Jesus. He explains why Mary the public sinner overcame her shame and entered the house of the Pharisee by noting that the Pharisee was a leper and disfigured from the disease. St Mary Magdalen could see that since Jesus was prepared to eat with a leper, he would not reject her.

This simple method of contemplation outlined by Ludolph and set out in Vita Christi, in many of his commentaries on the gospel stories that he chooses it can be argued influenced the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.   Indeed, it is said that St Ignatius had desired to become a Carthusian after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but was dissuaded by a Carthusian Prior. To this day members of the Society of Jesus may enter a Charterhouse, and if a vocation there does not work out, they may return to the Society of Jesus without penalty. This closeness between the Carthusians and Jesuits is arguably due to the great influence of Ludolph of Saxony’s De Vita Christi on the future founder of the Society of Jesus.

Michael Foss is dismissive of the influence of Ludolph on the Exercises of St Ignatius, saying “The Exercises show a bit of Ludolph.” Then, writing of St Ignatius, recovering from the cannon-ball wound at the Castle of Loyola, Foss says, “Bored, as only a man of action can be when driven to bed, he was driven by desperation to a few unappetising volumes that the Castle of Loyola offered. He found a Castilian translation of the long, worthy and popular Life of Christ by a certain Ludolph of Saxony, a 14th Century writer.”


Michael Foss (1969), The founding of the Jesuits, 1540, London: Hamilton, p. 92.

Charles Abbott Conway, The Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony and late medieval devotion centred on the incarnation: a descriptive analysis, (Salzburg, 1976), p2




The following is quoted from  SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS
Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus.

“Throughout the medieval period, the desire to live a spiritual life was a basic belief of paramount importance. A personal connection with God could be formed by prayer and devotional study. The Vita Christi text was one of many works that could be used as an instructional manual for religious devotion. Its aim was to stimulate thoughtful reflection. Through prayer and meditation, it teaches how to lead an ideal and pious life.

The title ‘Life of Christ’ can therefore be misleading. Although the work does document the chronological life of Christ as a whole, it is not a simple biography from his birth to his ascension; rather, it is an historical commentary woven with theological insight, life instructions, meditations and prayers.

    “The Vita Christi was a very popular work in the 15th century. There are many versions of the text, in a variety of languages, adapted by different authors. Numerous manuscript (and early printed book) copies of it from the late medieval period survive.

Ludolf of Saxony  Also known as Ludolphus of Saxonia or Ludolf the Carthusian, first entered the Dominican order before becoming a Carthusian thirty years later. Despite the addition of “Saxony” to his name, it would be remiss to make the assumption that this was his native land.

Often referred to as a summa evangelica (summa from the Latin ‘highest’ and ‘evangelica’ pertaining to the Gospels), Ludolf’s version of the Vita Christi text is one of the most comprehensive; it brings together the writings of approximately sixty authors.

It was deliberately written in a straight forward style that is easy to comprehend. It was essential for the reader to understand the text in order to achieve its aim of increasing spiritual understanding on the road to piety. As Bodenstedt states, the “wholesome means for spiritual progress offered to the readers of the Vita is a clue to its popularity; Ludolphus taught them the fundamental principles of the ascetical life in concrete and appealing fashion”

Ludolf also added prayers to the text to assist the reader with spiritual devotion. These are positioned at the conclusion of each section or chapter to encourage the reader to reflect on the previous passage.

The Vita Christi was brought to Ignatius (who had actually asked for a work of chivalric fiction to read) while he made a slow recovery from grave injuries sustained at the siege of Pamplona against the French in the Upper Navarra in 1521. Reading Ludolf’s work, Ignatius began a process of religious conversion that led to the abandonment of his older way of life and eventually to the journey that culminated in the gathering of “companions” in Paris that became the Society of Jesus.

Ludolf’s style resembles that of an effective preacher: he creates vivid images of people and places, drawing upon sensory language and lovingly described detail to draw the reader (and listener) into the story in a way that the Spiritual Exercises would do two centuries later. Yet unlike Ignatius, Ludolf recounts his story in a leisurely discursive style characteristic of the time before the printing press when oral communication was one of the primary means by which the content of a text was shared. Ludolf’s Vita Christi was thus the ideal volume for a reader such as Ignatius faced with forced inactivity, yet it would contribute to the spirituality of the relentlessly active Society.

Ludolf’s monumental devotional work also contains the earliest known use of the word “Jesuita,” here signifying someone who has been redeemed by Jesus Christ ab ipso Jesu dicemur Jesuitae, id est, a Salvatore salvati.

The version of the Vita Christi read by Ignatius, who at this point in his career had received relatively little formal schooling, was in Castilian Spanish.

This presentation of the life of Christ, filled with references to Patristic and medieval theologians, reminds us that Ignatius himself was born a medieval aristocrat in a corner of Europe not yet touched by the innovations of the Renaissance, surrounded by the social mores, devotional practices, liturgy, and ecclesiastical symbolism of that earlier world. This world knew little or nothing of the Western Hemisphere or the Far East, and conceived of Biblical events in the context of everyday Western European life. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ignatius, one of the central figures of the era of European exploration and expansion, first experienced the Person for whom the Society he founded was named in this pre-modern context.

Part One offers the Temptation of Christ as a solitary dialogue in the desert, bereft of any props or scenery.   Christ and the Tempter are presented simply and at first glance almost as equals standing side by side facing the viewer. The individual undertakings of Jesuits, scattered in the coming centuries across remote missionary locations, and often characterized by debates and dialogues, are perhaps foreshadowed in this illustration.

Each chapter in the Vita Christi concludes with a prayer. In contrast to Ludolf’s discursive prose, filled with asides, quotations, interpretations, and tangents, his prayers are more succinct, rising eloquently to a crescendo. In Ludolf’s day both narrative and prayer would have been read aloud. The prayer following Part One, Chapter 66, reads in part:

O Blessed forerunner and loving Baptist, great friend of Jesus, brightly shining and warmly burning light, pray to God, the father of mercies, for me in my misery, that by imitating you for Christ, so that he may brighten and set aflame my dark and cold heart….

Centuries later, Jesuit schools would perpetuate the use of spoken Latin in dramas, debates, and other public performances. The immediacy of Ludolf’s prose and the grace of his poetry indirectly shaped elements of Jesuit Latinity for years to come. Yet, the spoken Latinity of Ludolf’s work stands in contrast to the models followed by Jesuit educators, not least because the Latin prose that Ignatius learned at the University of Paris drew from Cicero and other classical authors rather than from the Patristic sources and the Vulgate that were Ludolf’s inspiration.  This difference is significant, since the Jesuit embrace of the reinvigorated Humanist Latin ideal of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries placed Jesuit schooling in the center of an educational program that rejected medieval scholastic models and sought to keep Latin a living mode of communication.”

Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus.  Copyright 2009 Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University.
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