A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 4



Historians tell us that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the cities of the Netherlands were the most populous and the richest in all Western Europe. Bruges, Ghent, Liège and Brussels by their manufactures, and Antwerp by her commerce, in which she rivalled Venice, had become celebrated for their great wealth, the grandeur of their rulers, and the magnificence of their great Guilds. The more northern towns, too, Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Utrecht, and many cities of Germany, such as Mentz, Cologne, Strasburg, Nürnberg, Augsburg, and Basel, were rich and prosperous. It was among these cities that the sister arts of printing and wood-engraving first flourished.

From undoubted evidence accumulated by the patience and labour of many bibliographers, it appears that the art of printing by means of movable type was not invented by any one man, but was the result of a gradual development of the art of engraving. In the fifteenth century, as in the nineteenth, there was an ever-growing demand for school books. One of the most popular of these in the fifteenth century was the 'Donatus,' a grammar so called from the name of the author. There was also a Latin Delectus called a 'Catho.' These were cheap books and were usually printed from engraved wood blocks. These and the block books already described were contemporary, and the immediate forerunners of separate types. (See Blades, 'Pentateuch of Printing,' p. 12.)

In certain editions of the 'Speculum' there are to be seen woodcuts printed in ink of one colour and text in ink of another colour, from metal movable types. These types are rude in the extreme, far more so than the German Indulgence of 1454, the very earliest known dated piece of printing. There is no doubt that the Donatuses were at first printed from wood blocks, both in Germany and the Low Countries, but there is not a single Dutch block-book Donatus known, while there are some nineteen or twenty early type-printed Dutch Donatuses already catalogued. Therefore it appears likely that Gutenberg simply developed the process which had already been for some time in use in the Low Countries for Donatuses and similar books.



The first book of importance that was printed at a press and from movable type was the celebrated Bible[1] which Gutenberg produced at Mentz about the year 1455. About the same time it is asserted that Laurent Janszoon Coster of Haarlem issued the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis, and much discussion has risen as to which book has the prior claim. The Dutch insist on Coster as being the proto-printer; the Germans not only assert the claim of Gutenberg but say that Coster is a myth! The controversy is still carried on and there is little likelihood that it will ever be decided.

In the year 1462 there was a small revolution in Mentz, owing to the rival claims of two Archbishops, and the city was sacked. The printers in the employment of Gutenberg and his partners, Fust and Peter Schoeffer, were scattered in every direction. Fifteen years afterwards printing-presses were to be found in every large city of Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in Italy and France; and about 1477, Caxton set up his first press in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis—'The Mirror of Man's Salvation.'—This was the first book, printed from type, that had wood engravings. It is a small folio containing fifty-eight cuts, each of which is divided into two subjects, inclosed in an architectural frame, in which is the title in Latin. The cuts are placed at the head of the pages, of which they occupy one-third. It is to be noticed that, though the cuts are all printed in brown ink, the text beneath them is printed in black: probably because the prints were to be coloured.

The arrangement and scope of this work are much like those of the 'Biblia Pauperum'; the subjects are taken from the Old and New Testaments, including the Apocrypha, and a few are from classic history.

The illustrations are from the first page: Casus Luciferi—'The Fall of Lucifer'—and Deus creavit hominem ad ymaginem et similitudinem suam—'God created Man after His own image and likeness.'

SPECULUM: THE FALL OF LUCIFER (Size of the original cut)
SPECULUM: THE FALL OF LUCIFER (Size of the original cut)

(Size of the original cut)

We see that the arts of drawing and engraving had improved since the time of the 'Biblia Pauperum.' The figures are in better proportion: in many of the designs the folds of the dress fall more gracefully and the shading is more artistically done. There are four fifteenth-century editions of this work known, two with the text in Dutch, and two in Latin. Three editions are printed entirely with movable type, while part of the fourth—the second Latin edition—is certainly from engraved blocks. No one can tell the reason of this curious anomaly—we can only conjecture. Experts tell the various editions by the state of the cuts; when these are unblemished, it is assumed that they are of the first edition; when a few of the lines of the cuts are broken, it is supposed that they belong to the second edition; when many are broken, to the third edition, and so on.

Mr. Woodbery[2] has so graphically described the 'Speculum' that we cannot do better than quote his words: 'A whole series needs to be looked at before one can appreciate the interest which these designs have in indicating the subjects on which imagination and thought were then exercised, and the modes in which they were exercised. Symbolism and mysticism pervade the whole. All nature and history seem to have existed only to prefigure the life of the Saviour: imagination and thought hover about Him, and take colour, shape, and light only from that central form; the stories of the Old Testament, the histories of David, Samson, and Jonah, the massacres, victories, and miracles there recorded, foreshadow, as it were in parables, the narrative of the Gospels; the temple, the altar, and the ark of the covenant, all the furnishings and observances of the Jewish ritual, reveal occult meanings; the garden of Solomon's Song, and the sentiment of the Bridegroom and the Bride who wander in it, are interpreted, sometimes in graceful or even poetic feeling, under the inspiration of mystical devotion; old kings of pagan Athens are transformed into witnesses of Christ, and, with the Sibyl of Rome, attest spiritual truth.

THE GRIEF OF HANNAH (From the Cologne Bible)
THE GRIEF OF HANNAH (From the Cologne Bible)

(From the Cologne Bible)

This book and others like it are mirrors of the ecclesiastical mind; they picture the principal intellectual life of the Middle Ages; they show the sources of that deep feeling in the earlier Dutch artists which gave dignity and sweetness to their works. Even in the rudeness of these books, in the texts as well as in the designs, there is a naïveté, an openness and freshness of nature, a confidence in limited experience and contracted vision, which make the sight of these cuts as charming as conversation with one who had never heard of America or dreamed of Luther, and who would have found modern life a puzzle and an offence. The author of the Speculum laments the evils which fell upon man in consequence of Adam's sin, and recounts them: blindness, deafness, lameness, floods, fire, pestilence, wild beasts, and law-suits (in such order he arranges them); and he ends the long list with this last and heaviest evil, that men should presume to ask "why God willed to create man, whose fall He foresaw; why He willed to create the angels, whose ruin He foreknew; wherefore He hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and softened the heart of Mary Magdalene unto repentance; wherefore He made Peter contrite, who had denied Him thrice, but allowed Judas to despair in his sin; wherefore He gave grace to one thief, and cared not to give grace to his companion." What modern man can fully realise the mental condition of this poet, who thus weeps over the temptation to ask these questions, as the supreme and direst curse which Divine vengeance allows to overtake the perverse children of this world?'

By far the most excellent book issued about this time is The Psalter, printed by Gutenberg's former partners, Fust and Schoeffer, at Mentz in 1459. The initial letters, which are printed in red and blue and the Gothic type, all of which are in exact imitation of the best manuscripts, could not be excelled at the present day. The book belongs more to the History of Printing, but on account of its beautiful initial letters, which, it is said, were drawn and engraved by Schoeffer, we feel constrained to notice it.


(Much reduced)

A Book of Fables issued from the press of Albrecht Pfister, of Bamberg, in 1461, may be mentioned as a very early work in which woodcuts and type were printed together; it is a small folio of twenty-eight leaves, containing eighty-five fables in rhyme in the old German language, illustrated with a hundred and one cuts. They are of little merit and show no advancement in the art of wood-engraving. The only known copy of this book, which is in the Wolfenbüttel Library, was taken away by the French under Napoleon's orders and added to the Bibliothèque Nationale; it was restored at the surrender of Paris in 1815.

We cannot give a list of all the books containing woodcuts that were issued in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century; their name is legion. We must, however, mention two or three of the most important.

In the Cologne Bible, printed about the year 1475, there are one hundred and nine cuts, one of which we give as an example; they are about equal in merit to those in the 'Biblia Pauperum,' but show no improvement. The subject of the cut is 'The Grief of Hannah.' We see Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah, in a room from which the artist has obligingly taken away one of the sides. In the Nürnberg Bible, printed in 1482, we find the same set of cuts.

The Nürnberg Chronicle, often quoted as an example of early German wood-engraving, is a folio volume containing more than two thousand cuts, which include views of cities, portraits of saints and other holy men, scenes from Biblical and profane history, and a great many other subjects, produced, we are told, under the superintendence of Michael Wolgemuth and William Pleydenwurff, 'mathematical men skilled in the art of painting.' The same head does duty for the portrait of a dozen or more historians or poets—the same portrait is given to many military heroes—the saints are treated in the same way, and even the same view serves for several different cities. The cuts are bolder and more full of colour than any we have had before, and so far may be said to be in advance, and this we must put down to the superintendence of Wolgemuth, who was an artist of repute. Chatto says they are the most tasteless and worthless things that are to be found in any book, ancient or modern—but this is too sweeping an assertion. The work was compiled by Hartman Schedel, a physician of Nürnberg, and printed in that city by Anthony Koburger in 1493.

The most important book of this time, so far as the woodcuts are concerned, is a Latin edition of Breydenbach's Travels, which was printed in folio by Erhard Reuwich in Mentz in 1486. We give a much reduced copy of the frontispiece, which is without doubt the best example of wood-engraving of the fifteenth century. In this cut we see for the first time cross-hatching used in the shadows, in the folds of the drapery of the principal figure—Saint Catherine, who is the patroness of learned men—in the upper parts of the shields and beneath the top part of the frame. Bernard de Breydenbach, who was a canon of the cathedral of Mentz, was accompanied in his travels to the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and the shrine of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai by John, Count of Solms and Lord of Mintzenberg, and Philip de Bicken, Knight. The arms of the three travellers are given in the cut with the names beneath them. Besides the frontispiece there are many other good engravings in this volume—a picture of Venice, five feet long and ten inches high; views of Corfu, Modon, in Southern Greece, and the country round Jerusalem. There are also many pictures of animals, such as a giraffe, a unicorn, a salamander, a camel, and a creature something like an ouran-outang. Travellers saw wonderful things in those days! It is a great pity that we do not know the names of the artists who drew and engraved the cuts in this most interesting book.

THE BIBLIOMANIAC From 'Navis Stultifera' (The Ship of Fools)
THE BIBLIOMANIAC From 'Navis Stultifera' (The Ship of Fools)

From 'Navis Stultifera' (The Ship of Fools)

Just at the close of the century we find the first humorous conception of German artists in the illustrations of the Navis Stultifera (Ship of Fools), written by Sebastian Brandt and printed at Basel in 1497. This very bold and original work had an immense success and was frequently reprinted. Every page is adorned with the antics of clowns and men in fools' caps and bells, in caricature of some absurdity, and the bibliomaniac is not spared: 'I have the first place among fools,' he is made to say; 'I have heaps of books which I rarely open. If I read them I forget them and am no wiser.' As will be seen by the cut, though the perspective of the draughtsman is not to be praised, the work of the engraver is excellent; the fineness of the lines is new to us and the shadows are well treated. Notice also the bindings of the books, with their bosses, hinges, and clasps; nearly all are folios, and four or five are ornamented with the same pattern. The decoration at the side is evidently copied from an illuminated manuscript. With this book we may fitly close our notice of German wood-engraving of the fifteenth century.

  1. It is often called the Mazarine Bible, because a copy was discovered, with notes written in it by the illuminator, in the library of Cardinal Mazarin. It is very scarce. In 1884 Mr. Quaritch bought a very fine copy from the library of Sir John Thorold, for which he paid £3,900.
  2. History of Wood-Engraving, 1883.