[Incunabula] [Patristic writings] [Syriac Orthodox Church]

St Ephrem the Syrian


Florence: Antonio di Bartolommeo Miscomini, 23 August 1481.

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FIRST EDITION. Text in Latin, translated from Greek by Ambrogio Traversari (1386 - 1439), with a dedication to Cosimo de' Medici.

This was the first book printed at Miscomini's newly established press in Florence, in his graceful roman font. The prominent early Italian printer Antonio di Bartolommeo Miscomini worked initially in Venice in 1476 - 1478, before moving to Florence. He is attested as printing in Florence during 1481-82, then intermittently until 1484, again in 1489 (after a period in Modena).

This is an attractive, complete copy of the scarce 1st Edition of the collected sermons of St Ephram the Syrian (306-373 AD), a Syriac Christian deacon and a prolific Syriac-language hymnographer and theologian, especially beloved in the Syriac Orthodox Church, and counted as a Venerable Father in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Ephram's sermons comprising this volume are often rather long and constitute self-contained theological treatises in their own right. Included, inter alia, are the following sermons:

Ephrem's sermons had been translated from Syriac into Greek at a very early date, and then into Latin by Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439), an important representative the Christian strain in Florentine humanism of early 15th century. Humanist, ecclesiastic, and patristic translator who helped effect the brief reunion of the Eastern and Western churches in the 15th century. He entered the Camaldolese Order in 1400 at Florence, where he mastered Latin and particularly Greek, which enabled him to translate Greek patristic works into Latin. His reputation in Humanist circles won him the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, to whom this translation is dedicated.

Pope Eugenius IV appointed Traversari minister general of the Camaldolese Order in 1431 and papal emissary to the Council of Basel in 1435. He served a prime role at the Council of Ferrara–Florence when, in 1438, as papal representative, he received at the council the Byzantine emperor John VIII and Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople. His expertise in Greek and Eastern theology made him a chief negotiator for the decree of union between the Latin and Greek churches promulgated shortly before his death.

St. Ephrem the Syrian was born about 306 at Nisibis in Mesopotamia. When the Persians forced Emperor Jovianus to relinquish Nisibis, Ephrem (who already was a famed teacher) and many other Christians migrated to Edessa. In Edessa he either joined or founded a school of Bible interpretation. During his years at Edessa, Ephrem lived in a cave, eating only barley bread and vegetables. Bald, short, without a beard, shriveled in his skin, he was a true ascetic. Nonetheless he took an active part in the affairs of the city where his dirty, patched robe must have made him a comical sight.

The Roman Catholic church finds support for much of its teaching in Ephrem's work. Centuries before the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception became official dogma, Ephrem taught it. He believed in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, taught the primacy of Peter, purgatory, intercession of the saints, original sin and more. St. Ephrem wrote many hymns. He so emphasized their place in formal worship that the practice spread from Edessa to the whole Christian world. He saw hymns as a means of Christian education. Hence many of his songs take faith as their theme. Others were written to counter the heresies of Marcion, Manes (founder of Manicheism) and Bardesanes. Some treat of crucifixion, paradise, the church and even virginity. These were widely sung and "lent luster to the Christian assemblies," according to one early church historian. The Syrians call him "the Harp of the Holy Ghost."

Bibliographic references:

Hain-Copinger 6599*. Goff E-45. Polain 1401. BMC V:636. Proctor 6138. BSB-Ink E-69. IGI 3679.

Physical description:

Chancery folio, leaves measure 272 mm x 184 mm. Rebound in 20th-century full dark brown morocco, spine with five raised bands, titled in gilt. All edges gilt, marbled endpapers; silk bookmark attached; housed In a protective slipcase.

90 unnumbered leaves (forming 180 pages).
Signatures: π2 a-l8.
Collated and COMPLETE, including the front blank (π1); leaf π2 (Tabula) bound at the end.

Text printed in single column, in roman type (Type 112R); 33 lines per page. Capital spaces filled with roman capitals painted in red in contemporary hand.

Includes a dedicatory epistle by the translator Ambrogio Traversari to Cosimo de' Medici (leaves a1r-2r). Colophon on l8r (verso blank).

Table of contents ('Tabula super sermones...') on π2r (verso blank) bound at the end, after the colophon)


A 17th-century ownership inscription (on front blank recto, and top of the dedication page) of Convento di San Francesco di Fiesole, a Franciscan monastery located in Fiesole in the region of Tuscany.


Very Good antiquarian condition. Complete. Occasional light soiling, a few small, harmless stains; some light smudging from the painted initials. A closed tear (repaired) to blank bottom margin of leaf a1, and a minor marginal repair at bottom edge of the next leaf (a2), none of which affects the text (no loss). Two final leaves (l8 and π2) laid down (underlaid).on their blank verso, the latter with minor loss to blank margin at bottom edge, but without any loss of text. In all, a nice, clean, bright and solid example with wide margins and appealing contemporary rubrication.

Bibliographic references:

Caillet 10840; Ferguson II, 469; Durling, NLM 3519; Wellcome 6357.

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