Woodcut and stencil were probably the first printmaking processes to be employed in Europe, although an impression on vellum of a Crucifixion (sold Stuttgart, H. G. Gutekunst, 13 May 1907, lot 33), described as an ‘anonymous 12th-century metalcut’, appears to be a rubbing, made at an unknown date, from a Romanesque metal bookcover, perhaps a damaged champlevé enamel one. The date at which woodcut printing was first used in Europe cannot be precisely determined. In China, banknotes, block-books, devotional images and landscapes had all been printed on paper from wooden blocks for centuries before the method was employed in Europe. Indian techniques of printing textiles with a mordant or resist before dyeing them may also have spread to Europe in antiquity (see Indian subcontinent, §VII, 3(i) and (ii); see also Textile, §III, 1(ii)(b)). The surviving Late Antique fabrics found in Europe were, however, stamped directly with colour. This method was revived in the later Middle Ages, when fabrics were printed imitating expensive Asian textiles. Images of saints and biblical scenes were also printed on fabric. This may have been because paper was more expensive than cloth and often less readily available. Images on cloth could have been used in many ways unsuited to impressions on paper: sewn on to or into garments, and used as bandages, where their main purpose is likely to have been protection through the power of the saints depicted.
The invention of paper in China spread gradually through the Islamic world to reach Egypt and Morocco by AD 1100. The establishment of paper mills in Italy (1276), France (1348) and in the Holy Roman Empire (c. 1390) made it cheaper and more readily available. While this made it more attractive to printers, it had no great advantage over fabric as a support for religious images. The need to print playing cards on a material that could be stiffened easily may have led printers to favour paper. The growing popularity of gaming from the late 14th century soon encouraged mass production of playing cards by stencilling and/or printing. The early packs wore out and were discarded, so that only a few high-quality painted packs have survived. The printing of playing cards and pious images probably developed in parallel, for there are records of printed images of saints made around the last decade of the 14th century.
Style alone cannot provide precise dates and locations for the production of the earliest woodcuts, which are in the International Gothic style, characterized by similarities between the works produced in different geographical areas. The provenance of impressions is probably indicative of where prints were preserved rather than of where they were produced. The earliest apparent references to the technique point to its use in Italy and in Burgundy. However, only three Italian woodcuts exist that have been even tentatively dated to before 1400; the one most likely to be early is the fragmentary Trinity with Saints (s. 749f), which, like the majority of surviving early Italian woodcuts, is in the collection of Jacopo Rubieri (now Ravenna, Bib. Com. Classeuse). In 1393 the Duke of Burgundy paid a carpenter, Jehan Baudet, for producing ‘moles et tables…à la devise de Beaumez’ for the Chartreuse de Champmol, near Dijon; these were probably woodblocks, after designs by the Flemish artist Jean de Beaumetz, for printing images on either fabric or paper. There is documentary evidence for the production of images of saints in Venice (probably by means of woodblocks) from 1396, when St Catherine of Siena (1347–80) was first venerated there. However, no late 14th-century image of St Catherine of Siena has survived. During the investigation into her possible canonization, evidence was presented that a devotee had arranged that an image of her, ‘easy to multiply on pieces of paper, should be shown with her attributes’ and that ‘several thousand of these images have been made, so that no small quantity has been distributed both in Venice itself and in the countries mentioned before [Poland, Germany, Byzantium, Dalmatia and various Italian states] and what is more this is the origin of the fact that today the images of the various saints on their feast days are multiplied on such pieces of paper’. The omission of France and Spain from the above list of countries may be significant, for printed images seem to have met with strong opposition from the guild of imagiers in France and to have been treated as illicit goods, which may have hampered trade in devotional woodcuts there. Playing cards, however, spread rapidly. By 1382 they were so common that at Lille card games were banned as a serious distraction from archery practice. This suggests that cards were already being mass-produced cheaply, by either woodcut or stencils.
© 2009 Oxford University Press