A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 3




Ars Moriendi.—Of all the block books known to us, this bears the palm for artistic merit. It is probable that the 'Ars Moriendi' is of later date than the block books already described. Mr. George Bullen (Holbein Society, 'Ars Moriendi,' 1881, p. 4) was of opinion that the first edition was printed at Cologne in Germany about the middle of the fifteenth century. Others say that the quarto edition is the earlier. The illustrations belong to the lower Rhenish School, which, about the middle of the fifteenth century, was influenced by the style of Roger van der Weyde, and probably also by the work of some of the pupils of the Van Eycks. There are eleven woodcuts, about eight and a-half inches, by five and a-half inches, without including the frame-lines, printed on separate pages, and thirteen pages of text, all impressed on one side only of the paper. Five of the pictures represent a sick man in bed tempted by devils—I. To Unbelief; II. To Despair and Suicide; III. To Impatience of Good Advice; IV. To Vainglory; and V. To Avarice. In the five opposite pictures the sick man is attended by Good Angels, who refute the arguments of the demons. In the eleventh print we witness the death of the sick man. The drawings are somewhat similar in manner to the works of Roger van der Weyde, who lived in the early part of the fifteenth century. It was a time when art was beginning to awake from its long sleep, and such works as the 'Ars Moriendi' were far in advance of any we know of belonging to the previous century.

One of the best of the illustrations is from the last temptation: temptacio diaboli de avaricia, and is probably intended to be the presentation of a dream. The sick man's bed is on the roof of his house! A diabolus, as tall as the house, points to a youth—possibly the heir, who is leading a very Flemish-looking horse into a doorway—and says, Intende thesauro—take care of your treasures. The figures by the bedside must represent the father and mother, wife, sisters, and young son of the dying man. The diabolus on his right says Provideas amicis—'You may provide for your friends.' The heads of the diaboli in this print are more laughable than terrible, and suggest the make-up of a pantomime rather than the demons who are messengers of the Evil One. On the next page an angel gives good counsel to the dying man, a figure of Christ on the cross is at his bed's head, and the Mother of Christ blesses him. A group of relations and friends still attend him, and beside them are sheep and oxen. In the foreground an angel is driving away a man and woman, who are evidently in great grief, and a crouching demon says, Quid faciam—'What can I do?' Pictures like this appealed forcibly to the minds of the laity in the middle ages, and were doubtless fully explained to the uneducated by the religious dwellers in the monasteries and convents which at that time abounded throughout Europe.

A reproduction of this book was issued a few years since by the Holbein Society. The designs were copied in careful pen-and-ink drawings by Mr. F. Price, and the text was translated and the pictures described by Mr. George Bullen, who also wrote a learned preface, enumerating the various editions of the book which are known to have been printed in different languages. Weigel printed a photographic reproduction of this book in 1869.

The 'Ars Moriendi' was the most popular of all the block books. Before the end of the fifteenth century eight different editions had been issued, seven of them in Latin and one in French. M. Passavant states that he had met with thirty different imitations of it issued in Germany and Holland.

There is but one quite perfect copy of the first edition of this book known, and this fortunately is in the British Museum. It was bought at the Weigel sale in Leipsic in 1872 for the large sum of £1,072 10s., exclusive of commission.

Canticum Canticorum.—The Church's Love unto Christ prefigured in 'The Song of Songs which is Solomon's.' This is a much more pleasing book than the 'Apocalypsis.' The figures are more gracefully designed and the engraver has shown much more knowledge of his art; the indications of shading are in many instances very happily given. It consists of only sixteen leaves with two subjects, one above the other on each leaf; each picture is five inches high by seven wide, and is printed by means of friction in dark-brown ink or distemper, on thick paper.

Our illustration is from the second leaf. In the upper subject we see the Bride and Bridegroom conversing, two maidens attending. The words on the scroll on the left are Trahe me: post te curremus in odorem unguentorum tuorum, 'Draw me, we will run after thee: because of the savour of thy good ointments' (Song of Solomon, ch. i., v. 4 and 3). On the scroll to the right, Sonet vox tua in auribus meis, vox enim tua dulcis et facies tua decora, 'Let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely' (Song of Solomon, ch. ii., verse 14). In the lower subject, in which the Bride is seen seated by her maidens and the Bridegroom is standing near, on the left-hand scroll we read, En dilectus meus loquitur mihi, Surge, propera, amica mea, 'My beloved spake and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away' (ch. ii., verse 10); and on the right, Quam pulchra es amica mea, quam pulchra es! oculi tui columbarum, absque eo quod intrinsecus latet, 'How beautiful art thou, my love, how beautiful art thou! thy eyes are doves' eyes, besides what is hid within' (ch. iv. 1).


(Much reduced)

On the sixth leaf, the Bride and Bridegroom are eating grapes in a vineyard, three maidens attending, all seated. In the cut below, the Bridegroom is standing outside a garden wall over which the Bride is watching him. An angel is entering the gate, other angels with drawn swords are on the wall.

It is supposed that these engravings were executed in the Netherlands: the female figures are said to be in the costume of the Court of Burgundy! There are several shields of arms to be found in three of the subjects, and these have given rise to long dissertations by writers on heraldry. Mr. Chatto's book has engravings of eighteen of them with descriptions. One is the shield of Alsace, another of the house of Würtemberg, a third of the city of Ratisbon; and the cross-keys, the fleur-de-lis, the black spread-eagle, and a rose (much like our Tudor rose), may be seen on others. Several copies of the 'Canticum' have been found, coloured and uncoloured. Two editions of the Canticum Canticorum are known; both appear to have emanated from Holland and the Low Countries, and both bear clear traces of the influence of the school of the Van Eycks.

The Figure Alphabet.—In the Print Room of the British Museum there is a curious little book (six inches by four inches in size) in which nearly all the letters of the alphabet are formed by grotesque figures of men. Except that it was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir George Beaumont, no one knows anything of its history; but internal evidence warrants us in attributing it to the work of an engraver of the first half of the fifteenth century. The cuts are printed in a kind of sepia-coloured distemper which can be easily wiped off by means of moisture. There is one very curious thing connected with this work. In the cut forming the letter L a young man is leaning on a sword, on the blade of which is plainly written London, and on the cloak of the youth lying below we read, in a current hand usual at that date, the word Bethemsted. The figures, grotesque as they are, were drawn by a better artist than those who designed the block books. We know that the art of engraving was in a very low state in England at the time we are speaking of; we should therefore rejoice if we could anyhow prove that these very early specimens of wood-cutting were done in this country.

In the letter F, which we have given as an illustration, very much reduced from the original, a tall man is blowing a very long trumpet; a youth, bending down to form the crotch of the letter, is beating a tabor; while a nondescript animal lies couched at his feet.

Many other block books exist in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the Spencer Library, Manchester, and in the large libraries on the Continent besides those we have mentioned. Some were printed, long after the introduction of printing, in Venice and in the cities of Lower Germany.

Before the beginning of the fifteenth century we have no record of any examples of wood-engraving of an artistic kind, except, as we have said, the designs on playing-cards, and the workmanship of these, whether it was by woodcuts or by a stencil-plate, was very crude. The art really came into existence in the first quarter of that famous fifteenth century. There were scores of men at that time who could carve excellently well in stone or wood, or who could design and make beautiful jewels, and some of these men, probably monks in their monasteries, as well as secular craftsmen, drew and cut the first wood-engraving. No one knows who they were.

Up to the year 1475 the original method of wood-cutting changed very little; nearly every print was in outline with a thick and a thin line. A few, such as those in the 'Ars Moriendi,' had a little shading of the most primitive kind. They were intended to be coloured, and, among the prints that have been preserved, experts say they can detect the manner of colouring prevalent in Upper or Lower Germany, the Rhine Provinces, or the Netherlands. Towards the end of the century came a transition. Shading was introduced and even cross-hatching was executed by the best wood-engravers of the time. The art took, as it were, a sudden bound, and in a few years attained a height which we at the end of the nineteenth century find it hard to excel. But of this we must speak in a future chapter.

Ars Memorandi.—This very curious book—much more curious than beautiful—contains fifteen designs and the same number of pages of engraved text. The designs are intended to assist the memory in reading the Gospels, and perhaps to assist the friars in preaching to the people. To the Gospel of St. John, with which the book begins, there are three cuts allotted, and as many pages of text; to St. Matthew five cuts and five pages of text; to St. Mark, three cuts and three pages of text; and to St. Luke, four cuts and four pages of text.

In every print an allegorical figure is represented; an eagle symbolical of St. John, an angel of St. Matthew, a lion of St. Mark, and an ox of St. Luke.

The first cut is intended to represent, figuratively, the first six chapters of St. John's Gospel. An upright eagle, with spread wings and claws, has three human heads—that of the Saint with a dove above it is in the middle, the head of Christ is on its right, and that of Moses on its left. A lute, from which three bells depend, lies across the eagle's breast; this is supposed to refer to the Marriage in Cana, and a little numeral tells us that the account of it is in the second chapter. Between the outspread claws is a bucket surmounted by a crown. These are symbolical of the Well of Samaria and the Nobleman's son at Capernaum in chapter iv. On the bend of the eagle's outspread right wing is a fish and the numeral 5, referring to the Pool of Bethesda in chapter v., and on the left wing are five barley loaves and two small fishes, and a small 6, referring to the parable of the loaves and fishes in the sixth chapter. This very singular book must have been a great favourite with the priests, and perhaps with the laity, for it was reprinted over and over again. It appears to have been of German origin.


Of the other block books mentioned in chapter ii. it would be tedious to give an account; they are very similar to those we have just described.