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The art of woodcut, which requires no special printing equipment is the oldest and was the least expensive print medium. Invented in China much earlier, it was produced in quantity in Europe in the closing years of the 14th century, as soon as paper began to be made there (In earlier days woodcuts had been printed on silk or parchment.). Woodcuts were almost exclusively anonymous until the age of Albrecht Durer, who began to initial his blocks shortly before 1500.
Earlier woodcuts were usually done by two different people--one(hopefully, a painter) who made a drawing on the plank grain of a wood block, while a second person (the Formschneider) did the laborious work of cutting away both sides of each line in the design. (In the workshop of Michael Wolgemut in Nuremberg where young Durer was apprenticed, some of the cutters were women of the master's own family.)
Prior to Durer, woodcuts were relatively small, inexpensive, and strictly utilitarian-thus not "fine art." They were frequently worn out and discarded when their purpose had been served. This is why they are extremely rare today. The best collection of such woodcuts in the U.S. today is in the Print Room of the U.S. National Gallery in Washington. Larger collections are found in Europe, mainly in Munich's Staatliche Graphische Sammlung and in Vienna's Albertina Museum.
Uses for early woodcuts included prayer sheets-especially those illustrating one or more of the "14 Holy Helpers" -i.e.auxiliary saints), each of whom "specialized" in a particular type of emergency, usually medical. They were also used as indulgence sheets (e.g., the Sudarium, Man of Sorrows, Sacred Heart, the Rosary, etc.); were collected as pilgrimage souvenirs or educational devices. More worldly uses included maps, playing cards; caricatures; greeting cards; good-luck charms; burglar insurance, or book plates. By mounting them inside the lid of one's traveling trunk or strongbox they could serve as; portable "altarpieces" for travel . After the invention of printing from moveable type at mid-15th century, they were increasingly used as book illustrations, since the finished blocks could be locked into the bed of the printing press at type height, and inked and printed as an integral part of the text. Engraved illustrations were not often used except at paste-ins after the book had been acquired by an owner, because engravings and etchings required inking and printing in a separate and more complicated process.)


Prints depicting devotional subjects-mostly arising from Rhenish or south German mystical visions, etc. of 14th century origin-- for contemplation by the buyer and including a text advertising a papal indulgence (the promise of the remission of temporal punishment for sins committed either by the purchaser or by a deceased friend or relative began to multiply exponentially during the late 15th century.
Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) had introduced the practice of granting indulgences at religious centers other than Rome. The indulgences spurred an increase in pilgrimage traffic to miraculous shrines, as well as attracting funds to support architectural projects , or simply, as in the case of Albrecht von Brandenburg to line the pockets of the local bishop. Naturally, it was not long before the designers of woodcuts began to indulge in what we should call free enterprise-writing up spurious indulgence letters promising huge numbers of years out of Purgatory, and simply pocketing the entire purchase price themselves.
An "authorized" indulgence sheet, as opposed to a bogus one, should reveal the name of the pope who authorized it, plus the amount of time out of Purgatory promised (to be obtained from the "Treasury of Grace" -i.e., the "excess" of mercy earned but not needed by the saints.) The sheet should also repeat the instructions for how to procure the indulgence. This could be by contemplation only;by contemplation plus prayer, or, in the case of "free enterprise" prints, simply by purchase.
One of the primary issues addressed by Martin Luther was the sale of indulgences. In his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), he declared:
"When they (the Pope and Rome) pretend that they are about to fight against the Turks, they send out emissaries to gather money. Often times they issue an indulgence on this same pretext of fighting the Turks, for they think the mad Germans are forever to remain utter and arrant fools, give them money without end, and satisfy their unspeakable greed."
On selling prints:
"There is a little word 'commend', by which the Pope entrusts the keeping of a rich, fat monastery or church to a cardinal or to another of his people...he is to drive out the incumbent, to receive the goods and revenues, and to install some apostate, renegade monk who accepts five or six gulden a year and sits in the church all day selling pictures and images to the pilgrims, so that henceforth neither prayers nor Masses are said there."

Stylistic development

Some general changes in woodcut style were noted by Arthur M. Hind, the director of the print collection at the British Museum in the early 20th century. Images from the first quarter of the 15th century tend to have "soft style" curvilinear drapery folds, rather little spatial depth, and fairly thick line work-all lines having roughly the same width, or weight.
By the second quarter of the century, outlines had become thinner, and secondary lines indicating extra drapery folds or even shading began to appear. The folds themselves became angular, and figure proportions more "normal" (heads bigger in relation to the height of the body-comparable to the style of Witz and his contemporaries) In some cases a passepartout border, cut from a separate block surrounds the picture.
By the third quarter of the century there are many illustrations for blockbooks and printed books, and the introduction of the "dancing" placement of the feet. By the end of the century, in the late 1490's, Albrecht Durer revolutionized the art of woodcut, raising it from a purely utilitarian and "disposable" craft to the final status of "fine art"-and the expense that went with it.

Some notable 15th-century woodcuts:

Death of the Virgin Mary [Parshall/Schoch #84]
(South German, before 1422; hand colored) Nuremberg, Germanisches Nat. Mus.
The strong influence in Germany of Byzantine liturgy, with its ritual devotion to the Dormition ("falling asleep" or Koimesis) of the Virgin, meant that the subject of the Virgin Mary's death, surrounded by the Apostles, was more popular there than in areas outside the Empire. By the 15th century, St. Peter, as head of the Church was usually depicted as having taken charge of the rite ofextreme unction.. Christ appears in a mandorla, to receive his mother's soul in the form of a small child who wears a crown. The various objects - aspergillum, processional cross, candles, prayerbook associated with the last rites for the dying are depicted here. Due to its unusually large size (263 x 375 mm) this impression has been somewhat damaged by folding. The fact that it must have been reprinted many times is suggested by the breaks in the linework of the frame.


St. Dorothy and the Christ Child [Parshall/Schoch #27]
Bavarian or Austrian (Salzburg), ca. 1410-20, hand colored. Munich, Graphische Sammlung. 270 x 197 mm.
One of the handsomest designs of the early fifteenth century, and one of the earliest depictions of St. Dorothy herself, who is much more popular in German-speaking lands than elsewhere, it represents the legend of the saint, who was mocked by the prosecuting attorney for her Christian belief as she was on her way to the place of execution. Rudely he is said to have suggested that she send him some fruit and flowers from Paradise. She agreed to do so, and was presented with the necessary produce by the infant Christ Himself.
The commanding placement of the image against a rose tree reminiscent of a common motif in Bavarian sculpture as well as in some of the backgrounds of pages in the Codex Manesse takes full advantage of the page. The carving of the woven basket with its simple chisel marks, and the slashed tufts of grass are well suited to the wood medium, as is the powerful but graceful tree trunk. The grommets on St. Dorothy's belt appear to have been made with a punch.
Dorothy, whose name means "gift of God", is a saint who can be invoked against poverty, can also protect against fire and theft, according to a manuscript of 1430. One of the quartet of lady virgin martyrs (with the more popular Catherine, Barbara, and Margaret) she is the patron saint of a nun's cloister in Vienna, but has few churches and no cities under her protection.


The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian [Parshall/Schoch #26]
Bavaria or Salzburg, ca. 1410-1430, hand colored. Munich. 287 x 206 mm.
Paper has a south German watermark.
This image depicts the most popular of the 14 Holy Helpers, St. Sebastian, who recovered from multiple arrow wounds only to be martyred all over again by order of the Roman Emperor Maximian. Since arrows were a familiar symbol of plague, he had become a favorite saint for hospitals, and for general protection against epidemic disease. The two marksmen, one armed with a crossbow and the other with the older longbow, are dressed in contemporary knee-length tunics rather than in Roman armor.


Christ in the Winepress [Parshall/Schoch #76]
South German, or Rhenish, 1400-1420, hand colored. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nat. Mus. 289 x 204 mm.
Left edge badly torn. Breaks in the linework indicate that it was printed many times.
In a touching allegory of the Eucharist, Christ is about to be crushed in the wine press, which is positioned above a tiny spout leading directly to a golden chalice of the type used to hold the wine of the Mass.
A passage from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah (63:2-4) was perhaps the inspiration for the image:"...I have trodden the winepress alone: and of the people there was none with me. I have trampled them...in my wrath."
The image, however, does not depict the wrathful divinity of the Old Testament at all, and there are no grapes involved., as is usually the case with other depictions of this image. The words of St. Gregory the Great are perhaps more to the point: "He has trodden the winepress alone in which he himself was pressed, for with his own strength he patiently overcame suffering."
St. John Damascene, too speaks of Jesus as "the grape of life," who was "squeezed in the winepress as the grape of the true vine." All of this would have been of intense interest in the man wine-making areas of Germany and Austria.


A Crucifix with the Arms of Tegernsee [Parshall/Schoch 38]
South German, ca. 1480 (reproducing an original of ca. 1420-39). Hand colored.
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nat. Mus. (sheet 410 x 273 mm)
The coat-of-arms of the Benedictine monastery at Tegernsee, Bavaria-entwined waterlilies-- appear on either side of the crucified Christ. Two impressions of this print have survived, both of which had been inserted into books in the monastery's library. It seems likely, though not proven, that they may have been printed there. It is worth noting that the coats-of-arms were printed separately from the main image of Christ.


The Mass of St. Gregory [Parshall/Schoch 32]
South German ca 1420-30. Hand colored./ Berlin. 269 x 197 mm.
This is both the earliest and the largest print depicting the dogma of transubstantiation, or: "real presence" of elements of Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine of the Mass. It was believed by all orthodox Christians in the 15th century that Christ himself once had appeared in bodily form on the altar during the consecration of the Host by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), reaffirming the truth of the dogma, which had recently been challenged by the Bohemian martyr Jan Hus., who was burned at the stake in 1415. The Pope is the tiny figure in the lower left corner of the print, while the towering figure of Christ, accompanied by the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist (both of whom were present at the crucifixion) are surrounded by the so-called instruments of the Passion, together with a small chalice and paten, and pair of altar candlesticks. The image has been pricked for transfer.


"Rest on the Flight to Egypt"(The Holy Family) [Parshall/Schoch 29]
(Austrian or Bohemian, circa 1430, hand colored). Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina.
Provenance: Vienna's Dorotheenkloster. Watermark: Bull's head with staff and flower.
Traditionally titled "Rest on the Flight to Egypt", presumably in honor of Joseph's culinary efforts, this image has none of the usual iconography of the flight to Egypt:-- no donkey, for one thing. For another, the Virgin Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven, and is seated on an altar/tomb nursing the Christ Child. (Maria lactans). Joseph, not yet a saint but an object of some sympathy as the movement for his canonization was underway, has been provided with a halo to which he was not officially entitled. The impression has been damaged, and the heavy black background applied to disguise its flaws.


The Vesperbild (Pieta) [UW slide]
South German, ca. 1430? Ex coll. Oettingen-Wallerstein, Vienna, Albertina.
A rare example of the "reversed" Pieta-copied from a sculptural group by a printmaker who forgot to account for the reversal of the image that would take place in printing. (Christ's head should rest on Mary's right hand, rather than left.)
From Lambach (Parshall/Schoch 31] which is oriented in the proper direction. Such prints as these were popular only in northern Europe, and would have been the inspiration for the French cardinal's commission from the young Michelangelo for the marble sculpture in St. Peter's, Rome at the century's end.


The Buxheim St. Christopher [Parshall/Schoch 35]
South German, ca.1450 - but with the date "1423" cut into the block. Hand colored.
Manchester (UK), Rylands Library. Provenance: Carthusian monastery in Buxheim.
Latin verse (also cut into the original block): "Whenever you look at the face of Christopher, in truth you will not die a terrible death that day."
(N.B.: A "terrible" or evil death meant simply dying without the opportunity to confess one's sins an receive absolution from a priest. It was one of the dangers of going on pilgrimage, which led to Christopher's popularity as the patron saint of travelers.)
For many years "1423" was accepted as the actual date of the woodcut. However, the sophistication of the cutting-note the differences in line weights and the use of shading lines in the saint's drapery folds-has no parallel before the middle of the 15th century.


Christ as Man of Sorrows (Imago pietatis; Schmerzensmann) [Parshall/Schoch 72]
German (Ulm), ca. 1465-80; hand colored.( Art Institute of Chicago)
400 x 261 mm. Excellent condition. Mounted on the cover of a lost book.
The "ribbon" convention at the bottom identifies this half-length image of the eternally suffering Christ as a vision. surrounded by the instruments of the Passion: (the cross, crown of thorns, holy lance, scourges, nails, iscription "INRI"). In addition to the nail and spear wounds, the painter has added numerous blood drops that were not part of the original design. The care with which the pine grain of the cross is depicted, and the handling of Christ's features and torso, as well as the "perspective" of the frame, point to a date well after mid-century.


New Year's Greeting Card: The Christ Child [Parshall/Schoch 53]
Rhenish (region of Cologne and Trier): 1460-70, hand colored. 178 x 129 mm. Munich, Graphische Sammlung
Inscribed "vhs" (monogram of Christ); "und e lange leben" (and a long life); "vil god iar" (a very good year).
The Infant Jesus was the original Baby New Year, and his image survives on many of the earliest greeting cards, including two other impressions (Berlin, Dresden) of this very image. The new year, rather than Christmas or Epiphany was the usual occasion for sending greeting cards in the 15th century, although the actual date on which the year began was not yet standardized across Europe, with March being a more popular choice than January. The holy child in the present case wears coral charms to ward off evil; holds a small parrot in his hands, and is seated on a brocaded cushion. At his feet are a basket of flowers and a pair of rabbits-surely harbingers of Spring. Next to him is the imperial orb surmounted by a cross and resurrection banner, while on his left a dove representing the third person of the Trinity-the Holy Spirit-is perched on the open lid of a box filled with further good wishes.


Satire on Kaiser Friedrich III and Pope Paul II [Parshall/Schoch 57]
German, 1469-1480, hand colored. 390 x 260 mm. Washington DC, Nat. Gallery, Rosenwald collection
Inscribed: On the oars, Duke of Bavaria; King of Poland; King of Hungary
On rungs of the pope's ladder: Sicily, Bosnia, Venice, Ragusa
On the anchor: Imperial electors
This political satire on the attempt of Pope Paul II to inveigle the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III into going on crusade seems to have been immensely popular, to judge from the number of free copies that have survived. The Pope (wearing the papal tiara of three crowns) and the Emperor (wearing the imperial crown) are both clad only in wrestlers' trunks, and are prexariously balanced atop the crow's nest of a ship of state whose oars, stays and rope ladder are inscribed with the names of their respective allies and their territories. In the pope's right hand are the French fleur-des-lis and the Roman scales of justice, while Friedrich, burdened by the bag of money dangling from his neck, holds only the broken scepter of Bohemia, and balances one foot on the back of the Burgundian lion. A denuded tree labeled "Jerusalem" is on the lower right. The comet (upper right) may refer to the appearance in 1468 of Halley's comet, which caused great consternation at the time. Friedrich and Paul II had met in Rome in 1468 to discuss the position of Bohemia (broken scepter= King George Podiebrad, excommunicated by the pope.) Pope Pius II, Paul's predecessor had been about to set out on a crusade before his death, and it was Paul's hope (in vain) that Friedrich could be persuaded to take up the cross himself.