A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 1



Many volumes have been written on the subject of Wood-Engraving, especially in Germany, Holland, and Belgium, where the art first flourished; as well as in Italy, France, and England; and some of the best of these books have been published during the present century.

The most important of them are, Dr. Dibdin's celebrated bibliographical works; 'A Treatise on Wood-Engraving,' by W. A. Chatto, of which a new edition has lately been issued; 'Wood-Engraving in Italy in the 15th Century,' by Dr. Lippmann; and, above all, 'The Masters of Wood-Engraving,' a magnificent folio volume written by Mr. W. J. Linton—himself a Master—who, besides giving us the benefit of his technical knowledge obtained by the practice of the art for fifty years, presents us with copies, from blocks engraved by himself, of the most celebrated woodcuts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Many writers have asserted that the first wood-engravings are to be found on playing-cards; others maintain that the very rough prints on the playing-cards of the early fifteenth century were taken from stencil-plates. It is impossible to decide the point, nor is it of much importance; there is no evidence whatever as to the method of their production. They appeared in Europe about the year 1350: they came from the East, but their positive history, according to Dr. Willshire, begins in the year 1392.[1] It has been asserted that many prints of Images of Saints produced by means of wood-engraving preceded even playing-cards.

The first undoubted fact that we can arrive at in the history of wood-engraving is that early in the fifteenth century there were to be found, in many of the monasteries and convents in various parts of Europe, prints of the Virgin with the Holy Infant, the most popular Saints, and Subjects from the Bible, which were certainly taken from engravings on wood; and we have now to describe some typical examples of primitive devotional pictures, printed by the xylographic process. The earliest of these woodcuts may date from 1380, and there are many which are assigned to the first half of the fifteenth century; they were all intended to be coloured by hand, and are therefore simply in outline, without shading. The designs are usually good, but the execution is not always so meritorious.

In the Royal Library at Brussels there is a coloured print of The Virgin with the Holy Child in her lap, surrounded by four Saints in an inclosed garden. On the Virgin's right hand sits St. Catherine, with a royal crown on her head, the sword in her left hand, and, leaning against her feet, a broken wheel. Beneath is St. Dorothea crowned with roses, with a branch of a rose-tree in her right hand and the handle of a basket of apples in her left; on the other side are St. Barbara holding her tower, and, under her, St. Margaret with a book in her left hand; her right hand clasps a laidly dragon, and a cross leans upon her arm.

THE VIRGIN WITH FOUR SAINTS In the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique
THE VIRGIN WITH FOUR SAINTS In the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique

In the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique

Outside the palings a rabbit is feeding; a bird sits on the rail behind St. Catherine, two others are flying, and, above all, three angels are offering chaplets of roses to the Virgin; a palm-tree is growing on each side of her. But the most important part of the print is the very solid three-barred gate at the entrance to the garden, for on the uppermost of the bars we distinctly read m: cccco xviiio. The print itself measures 14½ inches in height by 9 inches in width, without reckoning the border lines. It was found pasted at the bottom of an old coffer in the possession of an innkeeper at Malines in 1844 by a well-known architect, M. de Noter, who, recognising its great importance, offered it to the Royal Library at Brussels. It has been reproduced in scrupulously exact facsimile and fully described in the work entitled 'Documents iconographiques et typographiques de la Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique,' published by MM. Muquardt of Brussels. The small letters o are supposed to represent nails in the gate.

M. Georges Duplessis tells us that he has examined the print minutely several times, and that he does not believe this date has been tampered with in any way. Some collectors and would-be critics maintain that the drawing of the figures and the folds of the garments are of a later date than 1418; if they were to examine the works of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and the paintings of Meister Stephan Lochner of Cologne, Rogier van der Weyden, and other artists who lived about this time, they would be sufficiently answered. Mr. Linton is of opinion (and there can be no better judge) that the style of the engraving does not compel him to attribute it to a later date than 1418, yet both he and Mr. Chatto express their doubts as to its authenticity—it appears to us, without sufficient reason.

About the middle of the eighteenth century Herr Heinecken, a German collector of engravings, discovered, pasted inside the binding of a manuscript in the library of the convent of Buxheim in Suabia, a folio print brightly coloured of St. Christopher bearing the Infant Christ.

The outlines are printed in black ink, not by any kind of press, but in much the same way as that used by wood-engravers of the present day in taking their proofs, who first ink the engraved surface with a printer's ball, then lay the paper carefully over the cut, waxed at the edges to hold the paper firmly, and rub the back of the paper with a burnisher. In the fifteenth century a roller called a frotton was used, as being more expeditious.

Our illustration gives an idea of the original, which is still in the cover of the book in which it was discovered, and now in the Spencer Library at Manchester. The cut measures 11½ inches in height by 8½ inches in width, and is coloured after the manner of the time; that is, the Saint's robe is tinted with red and the lining with yellow ochre, the nimbuses are of the same kind of yellow; the robes of Christ and the monk are light blue, of the same tint as the water; the grass and foliage are bright green; the faces, hands, and legs are in a pale flesh-tint; there are but five or six colours used, and they may have been either washed in by hand or brushed in through a stencil-plate. As hand colouring would be quicker and less troublesome, one does not see the advantage of the stencil. The inscription beneath the cut reads thus:—

Cristofori faciem die quacumque tuerisMillesimo cccco
Illa nempe die morte mala non morierisxxo tercio

which may be rendered:

On whatever day the face of Christopher thou shalt see,
On that day no evil form of death shall visit thee.

ST. CHRISTOPHER The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library now at Manchester.
ST. CHRISTOPHER The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library now at Manchester.

The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library now at Manchester.

Mr. Linton is enthusiastic in praise of this cut. 'I am well content,' he says, 'to give some words of unstinted praise to our St. Christopher for the design. I mind not the disproportionate space he occupies in the picture. Is not he famous as a giant? The perspective also is good enough for me, as doubtless it was to those in whose interest the print was issued. It is certain he is crossing a stream; we see a fish beneath the waves. He supports his colossal frame and helps his steady course with a full-grown fruit-bearing palm-tree—fit staff for saintly son of Anak; no heathen he; the nimbus is round his head. As on his shoulders he bears the Lord of the World, can we fail to remark his upturned glance, inquiring why he is thus bowed down by a little child? The blessing hand of the Blessed plainly gives reply. Look again, and see on one side of the stream the merely secular life; is it not all expressed by the mill and the miller and his ass, and far up the steep road (what need for diminishing distance?) the peasant with the sack of flour toiling towards his humble home. And on the other side is the spiritual life—the hermit, by his windowless hut, the warning bell above; he kneels in front, with his lantern of faith lifted high in his hand, a beacon for whatever wayfarer the ferryman may bring. Rank grasses and the fearless rabbit mark the quiet solitude in which the hermit dwells. I can forgive all shortcomings. These old-century men were in earnest.'

In the Spencer collection are two other prints which may be attributed to the same period as the St. Christopher. One is a picture of The Annunciation, which was found pasted on the end cover of the book (Laus Virginis) in which the St. Christopher was discovered. It is of similar size, and is printed with a dark-coloured pigment, probably by means of a frotton. The Angel Gabriel is kneeling before the Virgin, who also is kneeling; she holds a book in her hand, and is represented in a kind of Gothic chapel; a vase with flowers in it stands under one of the diamond-paned windows. The Holy Dove is descending in a flood of rays; unfortunately the figure of the Almighty has been torn from the top left-hand corner of the print. On one of the pillars of the chapel is a small scroll with the legend

Ave gracia plena dominus tecum.

THE ANNUNCIATION The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library.
THE ANNUNCIATION The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library.

The original (11½ in. by 8½ in.) is pasted inside the cover of an old manuscript book in the Spencer Library.

The wood-engraver may produce his design in two ways, either by means of black lines on a white ground, or by white designs on a black ground. The two methods are here united, while in the St. Christopher one only (the first) is used. Notice the discreet use of masses of black to give force to the design, and to contrast with the lightness of the other part of the picture. The Annunciation belongs to quite a different school to the St. Christopher.

The other print is of St. Bridget of Sweden (who died in 1373). She is seated at a sloping desk, writing with a stylus in a book. The motto above her head is o brigita bit got für uns ('O Bridget, pray to God for us'). In the left upper corner is a small representation of the Virgin with the Holy Infant in her arms, opposite is a shield with the letters S.P.Q.R. on it, referring to her journey to Rome. In the lower corners are, on the left, the palm and crown of martyrdom; and on the right is a shield with the Lion rampant of Sweden. A pilgrim's hat and scrip hang on a staff behind the Virgin's seat. The print is roughly coloured, evidently by hand.

Many other woodcuts of the same character have been discovered, which are believed to have been engraved in the first half of the fifteenth century. In the Imperial Library at Vienna there is a print of St. Sebastian, bearing the date 1437, which was found in the monastery of St. Blaise in the Black Forest. 'Having visited,' says Herr Heinecken, 'in my last tour a great many convents in Franconia, Suabia, Bavaria, and in the Austrian States, I everywhere discovered in their libraries many of these kinds of figures engraved on wood. They were usually pasted either at the beginning or the end of old volumes of the fifteenth century. These facts have confirmed me in my opinion that the next step of the engraver on wood, after playing-cards, was to engrave figures of Saints, which, being distributed and lost among the laity, were in part preserved by the monks, who pasted them into the earliest printed books with which their libraries were furnished.' Herr Heinecken possessed more than a hundred of these pictures of Saints. There can be little doubt they were produced in the monasteries and convents, and distributed to the people, especially in the processions of the Church, as aids to devotion. Among the thousands of monks who lived in the fifteenth century there must have been many men who, like Fra Angelico, were gifted with sufficient artistic taste to enable them to draw and engrave such a picture as the St. Christopher.

  1. W. H. Willshire, Playing and other Cards in the British Museum, 1 vol. 8vo. (1876).