New York's American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) this week announced the acquisition of a major double-page religious text by Pennsylvania German fraktur artist Johannes Ernst Spangenberg (c. 1755—1814) that has remarkably survived inserted within the pages of the family Bible belonging to Jacob Schäfer. Spagenberg is known as the “Easton Bible Artist” after the large, double-page bookplate that he made for the pulpit Bible of the First Reformed Church in Easton, Norththumberland County, Pennsylvania. The Bible acquired by the museum is one of only three by the artist that are extant with the embellished pages remaining in situ. The piece was purchased at the 2019 Winter Show from David A. Schorsch - Eileen M. Smiles American Antiques.
“This fraktur is a magnificent addition to the museum’s collection,” said Jason T. Busch, director of AFAM. “It is the first acquisition by the museum in the year that marks the 30th anniversary of its location at 2 Lincoln Square. It is a history-making purchase that advances the importance of the museum’s collection of historic American folk art, which has been formed largely through the generosity of collectors over six decades.”
Recognizing the cultural and artistic importance of this piece, a consortium of members of the Board of Trustees of AFAM as well as AFAM collection committee members made the purchase possible. The lead gift was contributed by Ralph and Bobbi Terkowitz, with a generous donation by Karin and Jonathan Fielding, and further support from Lucy and Mike Danziger, Barbara Gordon and Steve Cannon, Joan Johnson, and Renata Jaisul Ferrari and Brett A. Robbins.
The religious text joins one other example of Spangenberg’s work in the museum’s collection: the Birth and Baptismal Certificate for Martin Andres, c. 1788. That piece, interestingly, is written in English, rather than German.
The double-page fraktur acquired by the American Folk Art Museum is ink and watercolor on paper, in a printed early eighteenth-century Bible bound in dark brown calf with gold tooling on the covers. The Bible further contains a page of handwritten genealogical notes detailing the names and dates of birth for Schäfer’s children. Jacob Schäfer was a blacksmith and he and his wife Elisabeth had thirteen children — six of whom died as infants or young children. The Schäfers may have been the second owners of this Bible, as a blank page indicates that it was once the property of Johannes Bibighaus and his wife Eva.
The religious text with lively embellishment and bold calligraphy by Spangenberg was added once the Bible came into the possession of Jacob Schäfer, whose name is emblazoned across the two pages. The text, which rhymes in the original German, translates:
Jesus is my protector on earth and my treasure in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus must be like honey to me, when everything else is the same. Jesus stays in my “panier” (basket/box/bag/container), Jesus is my heaven here.
According to fraktur scholar Lisa Minardi, the text is copied directly from a stanza in a German hymn titled “Je länger, je lieber” (the longer, the dearer), written by the German Lutheran composer Benjamin Schmolck (1672-1737). It was published in numerous hymnals during and after Schmolck’s death.
“Spangenberg’s singular and celebratory style is characterized by panoplies of musicians, oversize flowers, and animals in friezes across the top and bottom of the page,” said Stacy C. Hollander, deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator of AFAM. “The exuberant beauty of the design, coupled with the rarity of finding the work still bound in its Bible, make this fraktur an acquisition of major significance for the museum.”