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Woodcut

2. 15th century

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Introduction

Early in the century woodcut was the chief printmaking medium, although stencils were also employed. It was used almost entirely to produce playing cards and religious images, including indulgences and New-Year-greetings sheets. The earliest woodcuts were often powerful, imaginative designs, made to be coloured by hand or stencil, which gives them the effect of stained glass. As the blocks deteriorated and they were copied by lesser craftsmen, many woodcuts of mediocre quality resulted. Many early woodcuts were pinned or pasted to walls, cupboard doors, small altars and tombs, carried as personal protection or even printed on bandages in the hope of promoting healing. They soon became torn and dirty, to be discarded and replaced by other images. Only a tiny fraction has survived, usually because they were pasted into books or used as scrap materials in book covers. Most are either unique or extremely rare.

In the second half of the century woodcut was also used for block-books and illustrations in typographical books, alphabets, book plates and bookcovers, and for portraits, maps, song-sheets, broadsheets, almanacs and other printed ephemera. The main centres of production were in the Holy Roman Empire, Italy and the Netherlands; later in the century France also played a significant role. Other countries produced few woodcuts, and these were mostly for book illustrations. The woodcuts that appear to belong to the earliest phase include the splendid large Christ before Herod (Schreiber, no. 265) and the fragmentary double-sided woodblock known as the Bois Protat, with images of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion (s 1h and 1i). It was found, together with some other, completely worm-eaten, blocks, near the abbey of La Ferté-sur-Grosne in Burgundy. This led to an attribution to the Burgundian school for the group. They are powerful images with the long, flowing lines characteristic of the International Gothic, dagged garments, large, expressive hands and angular brow-lines. However, they resemble Bohemian biblical drawings of c. 1390–1430 and may have originated there. The same is true of a small Crucifixion (sold London, Sotheby’s, 1 Dec 1986, lot 50) and an early Flagellation (s 288), usually considered to be French.

(ii) Holy Roman Empire

The date and place of origin of the above works are uncertain, but various others that are broadly similar were probably made in the Salzburg region or Upper Bavaria in the early 15th century. They include Christ Carrying the Cross (s 336m), St Erasmus (s 1410d) and an important group of early 15th-century woodcuts in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, with scenes from the Life of the Virgin, Crucifixions and saints, including St Dorothy (s 1394) and St Sebastian (s 1677). There are significant holdings of similar woodcuts in Nuremberg (Ger. Nmus.), Graz (Ubib.), Berlin (Altes Mus.) and Paris (Bib. N.). In these early cuts the outlines are thick and flowing, and some of the impressions have the background obscured by a brownish-black tint, leaving the graceful figures in silhouette. They wear softly draped garments with Y- and J-shaped folds, which fall in loops and hairpin bends and crumple gently at the hem. This looping soon became a mannerism, and in some cuts of c. 1420, such as St Dorothy (s 1395), St Christopher (s 1352) and St Wolfgang (s 1733; destr. 1942), it is quite exaggerated. The Lambach Pietà (s 972a) and a larger Pietà with the Instruments of the Passion (Stogdon, no. 1) have equally complex fold patterns. Carved wooden Pietàs were produced in southern Germany and widely exported. The woodcuts are probably based on such carvings, and other prints of figures on plinths, benches or thrones probably also reflect a copy of sculpture. Indeed wood-carving workshops may have produced woodcuts after their own statues.

The existence of early copies, some unrecognized, complicates dating. Two famous Bohemian woodcuts in Vienna (Albertina), the Holy Family and St Jerome (s 637 and 1536), bear signs of being copies of important, lost, early woodcuts: the actions are carried out with the left hand, and there are areas (e.g. in the landscape behind St Jerome) where the cutter has misunderstood the image. These woodcuts are datable to c. 1410–30; the originals would have been earlier, so Bohemia may have been in the forefront of the development of woodcut. Bohemia had been relatively little affected by the Black Death, and the emperor Charles IV’s patronage had led to a flowering of the arts there in the later 14th century. Other early Bohemian woodcuts, the Adoration of the Magi (s 97a), the Throne of Mercy (s 736; destr. 1942) and the Virgin Enthroned (s 1114; destr. 1942), should perhaps be dated to c. 1400–10 or even earlier. The same is true of the Virgin of Lyon (s 1069), often attributed to the French school but very similar to the Virgin Enthroned. They appear to relate to 14th-century Bohemian paintings and to Bohemian manuscripts of the late 14th century and the early 15th.

The first woodcut with a reasonably reliable date is from 1423. This is St Christopher (s 1349) from Buxheim Monastery. (A cut in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, dated perhaps misleadingly 1418 is discussed in §(iii) below.) Five other woodcuts, believed to come from the Upper Rhine area, may be grouped together with it: an Annunciation (s 28) from the same source, a Nativity and an Adoration of the Magi (s 84 and 98) and a double sheet of St Gertrude and St Apollonia (s 1454a and 1234x). They have quite fully developed backgrounds, thinner lines, shading in the folds of the rather angular draperies, and inscriptions that are sometimes on banderoles. This all suggests a designer who was in touch with recent developments in the Netherlands.

The earliest woodcut signature, ierg haspel ze Bibrach, is on a fine image of St Bernard Embraced by the Crucified Christ (s 1271). Nagler quoted a death date of 1430–40 for Jerg Haspel, but his authority for this is unknown. Biberach is in Swabia, an important area for woodcut production. The style of the work is simple and direct, with curved hooks and Y-folds and without over elaborate looped draperies. A similar approach appears in the Maihingen Pietà (s 973) and in St Christopher (s 1350a). These all have the thinner line characteristic of woodcuts of c. 1430–40. The designs of two outstanding woodcuts of this period, an Annunciation and a Visitation (s 25b and 52b), resemble the paintings of the Master of the St Lambrecht Votive Panel. They are still almost without hatching lines but have elaborate and detailed backgrounds, a feature that became increasingly common in the middle decades of the century. Some outstanding examples are the Agony in the Garden, the Last Supper, the Martyrdom of St Sebastian and the Beheading of St John the Baptist (s 184, 166a, 1516, 1676c). A mid-century woodcut of the Mass of St Gregory (s 1471), signed Bastion Ulmer (Sebastian of Ulm, fl 1460), is the first signed print from this important centre of woodcut production; an ‘Ulrich Formschneider’ was recorded there as early as 1398, and eight blockcutters worked there in 1441–7. Woodcuts of the Virgin and Child were always in demand. Particularly striking are a half-length version (s 1023), probably of the 1440s, and another printed in white on green-tinted paper (s 1048b), to form a highly decorative devotional panel.

From the 1430s goldsmiths adapted their chasing techniques to produce copperplate-engravings printed on paper. The higher status of their craft and the finer detail achieved meant that engravings were valued more highly than woodcuts. Nevertheless, woodcuts had many advantages: they were cheap and fairly quick to produce; they could be printed in larger editions, together with type; and designers could delegate the labour of cutting. However, European woodcutters increasingly emulated the linear qualities of engravings, instead of developing woodcut’s potential for printing tone, colour and texture as well as outlines.

During the late 15th century woodcut was developed into a flexible medium for reproducing hatched and cross-hatched line drawings. This took time, and some of the earlier, hatched cuts were aesthetically less pleasing than the unshaded images that had preceded them. As designers and cutters became more expert, techniques improved, and hatching lines ceased to sprout from the outlines like rigid combs. Comparison between the illustrations to the Cologne Bible of 1478–9 (e.g. London, BL, no. IB3837) and the Lübeck Bible of 1494 (e.g. London, BL, no. IC9954) indicate the advances made. The best designers of the 1480s and 1490s, such as Erhard Reuwich, Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, started to employ more flexible, form-following methods of shading, preparing the way for Albrecht Dürer, who transformed the medium between 1496 and 1511. Hans Burgkmair and Mair von landshut also designed some woodcuts in the new manner in the 1490s and made early experiments in printing in colour and on tinted paper.

One innovation that was only sporadically followed up in the 15th century was the use of colour-printing, for instance in initials by Johannes Fust (c. 1400–66) and Peter Schoeffer (c. 1425–1502) in the Psalter published at Mainz in 1457. They were printed, from either wood blocks or metal casts of such blocks, in red or blue and red combined. In 1485 the Augsburg printer Erhard Ratdolt ( fl 1467–1516), working in Venice, produced an edition of the Sphaera mundi, the astronomical treatise written by John Holywood, with diagrams printed in several colours. Venetian printers continued to use colour after Radolt returned to Augsburg in 1486. There he seems to have been involved in the printing of Burgkmair’s work in colour and in the development of chiaroscuro woodcuts, and perhaps also of white-line woodcutting.

(iii) The Netherlands

The small number of surviving woodcuts from the Netherlands (and from France) may be due to the destruction of images by Calvinist iconoclasts, the dispersal of monastic libraries during the French Revolution (1789–95) and the Revolutionary Wars. Both were, however, important centres for illuminated manuscripts, so there may have been opposition to printed images, which would threaten the illuminators’ livelihoods. Most early Netherlandish woodcuts have thin lines and are often printed in brownish ink. The much damaged Virgin and Child in a Hortus Conclusus (s 1160) bears the earliest date found on a woodcut—1418; a better preserved undated copy is in St Gallen (s 1161). Its similarity in linear style and shading to mid-century block-books has led many scholars to see it as a later copy with the date repeated. However, the style reflects the angular fold-structure of paintings c. 1420–40 by the Master of Flémalle and Jan van Eyck, so the date could be authentic. Two sensitively cut early Netherlandish woodcuts are the Man of Sorrows (s 864), in the manner of the Master of Flémalle, and the monumental Prophet and Sibyl (s 2008f). The latter has square-ended and 7-shaped pot-hooks in the drapery folds, like two further Netherlandish woodcuts, the Last Judgement and the Virgin and Child in the Vine Arbour (s 607 and 1168). This drapery style is usually dated to the mid-15th century, but again it may well be earlier.

Two woodcuts with Dutch inscriptions (and so undoubtedly from the Netherlands) are the mid-century Mass of St Gregory (s 1462) in pure outline and the Virgin and Child in a Glory (s 1108) of c. 1460, which has shading on some of the rays of the glory. The Crucifixion (830×535 mm) is a rare example of a very large-format woodcut. Stylistically it resembles the first edition of the Netherlandish Apocalypse block-book in Munich, as does a St George Slaying the Dragon (s 1448). A Grotesque Alphabet (s 1998) in the British Museum, London, has outlines fringed with tapered ‘teeth’, which are characteristic of images in Netherlandish block-books. Other Netherlandish woodcuts of the third quarter of the century have more extensive shading, for instance large images of St John the Baptist and St Christopher (s 1518) and a Virgin Suckling the Child (s 1039b).

(iv) France, Spain and England

No woodcut of before 1450 can definitely be ascribed to the French school. Some crudely cut fragments of friezes of the Passion (s 21c) and the Life of St Catherine (see 1977 exh. cat.) probably date from the mid-15th century, as does the double image of the Trinity and the Adoration of the Relics of St Claude (s 736b and 1080m). A slightly later series of the Apostles, the Credo and the Ten Commandments (s 1759), with French inscriptions, is akin to the Netherlandish Apocalypse block-book in character. However, the faces of the Nine Heroes (s 1945) resemble those in early French playing cards. Also characteristically French are illustrations depicting the activities of Death, such as the Men’s Dance of Death and the Women’s Dance of Death, published by Guy Marchant in 1485–6, and Pierre Le Rouge’s Danse macabre hystoirée (1492). Even more powerful are Robert Gobin’s Dance of Death woodcut illustrations in Les Loups ravissans (Paris, c. 1505), which are slashed into the block in an almost expressionistic manner. The woodcut fragment representing The Prophet Moses and the Erithrean Sibyl (Courboin, no. 150) is a very striking image—presumably from a series of Prophets and Sibyls.

The practice of selling cash-boxes and caskets with devotional images pasted into the lids as protection ensured the survival of a number of late 15th-century French woodcuts (examples, Paris, Bib. N.). These include scenes from the Life of the Virgin and of Christ, and images of saints with characteristic colouring in shades of red, green, brown and purple. Most of them resemble the precise and distinctive illustrations in the Books of Hours that became a speciality of Parisian publishers in the last decades of the century. A Martyrdom of St Erasmus (s 1410) is very similar stylistically. The fragment of an image of King Henry VI Invoked as a Saint (Dodgson, 1915, no. 21), perhaps the most important 15th-century woodcut issued in England, resembles Parisian work, and it was probably commissioned in France. Several late 15th-century woodcuts, including St Bonaventura at Lyon and the Two Saints Roch and the Two Saints John (s IX, 1282x, 1669m and 1518g), may have been cut in Savoy, or in Lyon; the latter was to become an important centre of book illustration. A few single-sheet woodcuts have survived from the south of France, including a large Crucifixion (s 370i), apparently influenced by Neapolitan or Spanish book illustration. In Spain and England woodcut was employed for book illustration, and Spanish books have some very fine white-line borders. Hardly any single-sheet woodcuts are known. In England (a country not otherwise to the forefront of printmaking) the so-called Schoolmaster Printer of St Albans produced the Chroniclis of Englonde (1485) with red initials and the Bokys of Haukyng and Huntynge and Blasyng of Armys (1486), with the arms printed in up to three colours.

(v) Italy

Italian imperial size paper was of larger format than papers elsewhere, so large Italian woodcuts such as the following examples could be printed without joins. The Virgin of the Fire (Forlì Cathedral) is revered as the wooduct saved from a fire in 1428; although it is not in the International Gothic style then current in northern Italy, scholars’ doubts about its authenticity are probably unfounded, for the facial features have affinities with early Venetian devotional paintings and with the woodcut of the Trinity with Saints. Two other fine, large images of the Virgin and Child (s 1158 and 1058) are probably of mid-century date. They represent a type of devotional woodcut that provided a cheap substitute for painted images of the Virgin, and one is still pasted on to panel. A Virgin Suckling (s 1041) with delicate Paduan-style swags of fruit is a slightly later example.

There is more evidence of Italian woodcut production of c. 1430–40. In 1430 ‘woodblocks for playing cards and saints’ were in the possession of a card-maker, Antonio da Giovanni di Ser Francesco, at Florence, while in 1440 a Paduan notary drew up a legal instrument according to which Magister Jacobus, a German dyer of skins, was to sell to Magister Cornelio de Flandria woodcuts printed and coloured, ‘as was usually done’, to the value of 20 golden ducats. The prices listed for individual images make it clear that c. 3500 impressions were involved. They were probably Italian, as the subjects correspond closely to those of the surviving Italian woodcuts in Ravenna. In 1441, however, the woodcutters and playing-card makers asked the Venetian Council for protection from foreign imports, which were ruining their trade.

Many of the woodcuts collected by Rubieri have affinities with Venetian and north Italian painting of c. 1430–60, notably that of Michele Giambono, Jacobello del Fiore, Antonio Vivarini and Gentile da Fabriano. A striking Martyrdom of St Sebastian relates closely to a Venetian miniature of 1436 attributed to Cortese. The foliated ogee arches of the frames surrounding St Philip Benizzi (s 1651) and St Bartholomew (s 1267), and the elaborate thrones on which other saints are seated, probably indicate a mid-15th century date for many of the designs, though there has been a tendency to date them later. The gentle images of female saints, especially the two versions of St Claire of Assisi in Ravenna (Bib. Com. Classeuse; s 1380) and Washington, DC (N.G.A.; s IX, 1756), and the St Catherine of Siena in Basle (s 1345), resemble early paintings of the Virgin by Jacopo Bellini.

Mendicant friars and other orders made use of woodcuts in their teaching and preaching activities. Images of Franciscan and Dominican saints and of St Augustine feature prominently among the surviving Italian woodcuts of c. 1450–80. Groups exist that are clearly connected in style, such as the Augustinian and Dominican saints in Ravenna (Bib. Com. Classeuse) and Washington, DC (N.G.A.); and the pairs of Lombard woodcuts of Franciscan saints in Ravenna (Bib. Com. Classeuse; s 1423 and 1987 exh. cat., no. 17) and Washington, DC (N.G.A.).

The finest 15th-century Italian single-sheet woodcuts are comparable in quality to the superb book illustrations made in Venice and Florence in the last decades of the century. One outstanding woodcut of St Anthony of Padua (s 1233) is clearly related to the intarsia reliquary cabinets of 1472–7 by Lorenzo Canozi and Christoforo Canozi in the basilica of S Antonio in Padua. Similar skills were required for the production of woodcuts and intarsia, and the woodcut was probably both designed by the Canozi and executed in their workshop. Though somewhat stiffly cut, a Venetian woodcut of the Naval Battle of Zonchio (1499) foreshadows 16th-century narrative woodcuts.

Italian woodcuts often have very decorative borders. Two fine, large late 15th-century Lombard woodcuts of Christ Carrying the Cross and the Man of Sorrows (s 919 and 855) based on designs in the manner of Andrea Solario or Gian Francesco de’ Maineri have elaborate white-line scroll frames. A Florentine woodcut of the Flagellation (Hind, ii, pp. 449–50) of much the same period, which has a comparable border, is related stylistically to the work of Filippino Lippi. As in many Florentine book illustrations, white-line work was also used for the ground on which the figures are standing. Another high-quality Florentine devotional work, in the style of Raffaellino del Garbo, is the Virgin and Child with St John (s 1137).

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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