A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 8



We must now retrace our brief history to Germany, where, under the immediate direction and control of such well-known artists as Albrecht Dürer of Nürnberg (b. 1471, d. 1528) and Hans Burgkmair of Augsburg (b. 1472, d. 1531), as well as of Lucas Cranach, a Franconian (b. 1472, d. 1553), and, afterwards, of Hans Holbein of Augsburg (b. 1497, d. 1543), the art of wood-engraving in its grandest and purest form arrived at its first culmination. This was in a great measure due to the liberal patronage of the Emperor Maximilian, who, possessing a great love of art, esteemed all painters, architects, designers, and engravers as highly as his warriors. He was fond of magnificence in a truly imperial way, and the superb series of wood-engravings—the noblest the world has ever seen—known as 'The Triumphs of Maximilian,' were the outcome of this generous tendency. Of these celebrated works, which were not completed when the Emperor died in 1519, we must speak in their proper place.

It was to the genius of Albrecht Dürer and the engravers who translated his drawings into woodcuts that the art received its new vigour. Up to this time wood-engraving in Germany had been the work of craftsmen who were little better than mechanics; but when Dürer and Burgkmair, who knew the capabilities of the art, made drawings on the wood expressly for the engravers to reproduce in exact lines, there was a quick improvement which went on increasing in excellence for more than half a century. After the death of Holbein and his immediate successors, the art faded into insignificance in Germany for many years.

The first important work of the early life of Albrecht Dürer was a series of fifteen large drawings on wood representing allegorical Scenes from the Apocalypse. They are mystical, indeed almost incomprehensible; at the same time we are obliged to notice the tremendous vigour and the wonderful power of invention in the man who designed them. But his attempt to embody the supernatural led him into the most extravagant conceptions. 'In attempting to bring such themes within the power of expression which art possesses,' writes Mr. Woodbery, 'he strove to give speech to the unutterable.' Yet the genius of the true artist was apparent through all his work. The most celebrated of the Apocalypse designs is the fourth in the book, 'The Opening of the First Four Seals,' a wonderfully grand conception of the Four Horsemen going forth to conquer; Death on the pale horse below, and 'Hell following him.' (Revelation vi. 8.) King, burgher, peasant and priest, have all fallen beneath him. Although we are expressly told that Dürer himself printed this work in 1498, it by no means follows that he engraved the woodcuts; they are greatly in advance of any previous work of the kind, and this may be attributed to the fact that the artist who designed them knew the best capabilities of the art. If he and the unknown engraver had learned the advantages of lowering the face of the wood when delicate lines were required, and the present methods of overlaying the cuts to produce greater intensity of colour, some of the engravings of Dürer's time would be models of excellence.

The series of the Apocalypse was succeeded by three others in which the human interest is far greater. These were what the artist himself called 'The Larger Passion of Our Lord,' a series of eleven large cuts, with a vignette on the title-page; 'The Life of the Virgin,' a series of twenty cuts; and 'The Smaller Passion of Our Lord,' a series of thirty-six cuts of less size, with a well-known vignette of 'Christ Mocked' on the title-page. These works mark an important era in the history of wood-engraving and clearly led onwards to its future development. They were all published between 1510 and 1512, and so great was their popularity that the celebrated Italian engraver, Marc Antonio Raimondi, reproduced the whole of 'The Smaller Passion' in copper-plate—much, as may be imagined, to Dürer's annoyance.

In the 'Larger Passion of Our Lord' we find representations of the Last Supper, Christ on the Mount of Olives, the Betrayal, the Scourging, Christ Mocked, Christ Bearing his Cross, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and other subjects from the New Testament; and so deeply did the highly-wrought artist feel the awful importance of his subject that he repeated some of these events in at least five different series. In all of them his characters are dressed in the uncouth habiliments of German peasants, and we see bits of German villages; but in this respect he only followed the example of the great Italian painters, who clothed the most sacred figures in the costumes of their own towns, and, when possible, gave an Italian landscape for a background to their pictures of the Holy Land.

The series of twenty large engravings called 'The Life of the Virgin' was published and sold by Dürer himself in book form at about the same time (1510), and was equally well received by the German people, who were at that time in a state of religious ferment consequent on the preachings of Martin Luther, and Dürer was one of his prominent disciples.


Engraved by Jerome Andre (?)

But it was the series of thirty-seven smaller woodcuts, known as 'The Lesser Passion,' that was most popular; in some measure, perhaps, because the prints are of a more handy size. All the subjects of 'The Larger Passion' are repeated, with variations, in this series, and twenty-five others from the Life of Christ are added. By a happy chance, thirty-five of the original woodcuts of this series are preserved in the British Museum. In the year 1840 they were reprinted, by permission of the trustees, under the care of Mr. Henry Cole. The wood was found to be much worm-eaten, but all injury was deftly repaired by Mr. Thurston Thompson, and a small edition of the work was issued[1] with an exhaustive introduction by Mr. Cole.

The most admired of all the works of Dürer are the large plates known as 'The Knight, Death, and the Devil,' 'The Conversion of St. Eustace,' 'Melencolia,' 'St. Jerome in his Chamber,' and several others which he engraved or etched on copper with his own hands and which he himself published. Fine impressions of these marvellous works are now as eagerly sought for as celebrated Rembrandt etchings.

Dürer made also many drawings on wood which were engraved and printed under his immediate supervision, and issued in separate sheets. Of one of the most beautiful, of these, 'The Virgin crowned by two Angels,' we are able to give an impression which is an exact facsimile (reduced) of a print of the year 1518. Nothing of its kind can exceed the brilliancy of the original, the engraving is as nearly perfect as possible, and were it not for the hardness of the lines in the faces and other objects where softness is required, no craftsman of the present day could surpass its excellence as a product of the printing-press. Many other separate large wood-engravings, after Dürer's drawings, appeared between the years 1510 and 1518, such as 'The Holy Family with the three Rabbits,' 'St. Jerome in his Chamber,' 'The Flight into Egypt,' 'Beheading of St. John the Baptist,' and, among other strange subjects, a representation of a Rhinoceros. Dürer also designed a frontispiece to his own book of poems, published in 1510.

Three magnificent books illustrated with woodcuts of great size, the 'Theuerdank,' the 'Werskunig,' and the 'Freydal,' appeared in Germany early in the sixteenth century. The first is an epic relating to the Emperor Maximilian's journey to Burgundy on matrimonial affairs; it was published in 1517. Hans Schaufelein drew the designs for a hundred and eighteen cuts, measuring 6½ inches by 5½ inches each. The second is in honour of the Emperor's journeys in distant lands, and the third to celebrate his deeds of prowess. There are 237 designs, chiefly by Hans Burgkmair of Augsburg, in the 'Werskunig'; the blocks are still preserved; they remained unused till long after the Emperor's death, and were not published till 1775. The 'Freydal' has never been completed, though the designs are still in existence.


But we have yet to speak of 'The Triumphs of Maximilian.' This imperial work, the most important production of the art of wood-engraving the world has ever seen, was executed by command of the Emperor Maximilian to convey to posterity a pictorial representation of the magnificence of his court, the splendour of his victories, and the extent of his dominions. It consists of three distinct sets of designs: (I.) The 'Triumphal Arch,' (II.) the 'Triumphal Car,' both from the hand of Albrecht Dürer, and (III.) the 'Triumphal Procession,' by Hans Burgkmair. The size of the work is immense; if the whole series were laid out side by side it would cover about one hundred and ninety-two feet (64 yards!) The drawings were made on pear-wood and were cut by about eleven different engravers, of whom the most famous was Jerome of Nürnberg. Many of the original blocks are happily preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna, and on the backs of them are written the names or initials of the various engravers. It is evident, therefore, that at the beginning of the sixteenth century there was a recognised school of wood-engravers in Germany of considerable importance. One of them, Jobst de Neger, or Dienecker, came from Antwerp; a few lived at Nürnberg, others at Augsburg.

Some idea of the 'Triumphal Arch' is conveyed to our mind when we learn that it was drawn on ninety-two separate blocks of wood, and that when properly joined it is ten and a half feet high and nine and a half feet wide! It was designed 'after the manner of those erected in honour of the Roman Emperors at Rome;' there are three gateways or entrances—that in the centre is called the Gate of Honour and Power, on the right is the Gate of Nobility, on the left the Gate of Fame, a part of which is seen in the illustration. The arch itself is decorated with portraits of the Roman Emperors from the time of Julius Cæsar, shields of arms showing the descent of the Emperor and his alliances, representations of his most famous exploits, including his adventures while chamois-hunting in the Tyrol, with explanatory verses in the German language cut in the wood. Above the central entrance is a grand tower surmounted by a figure of Fortune holding the imperial crown. The whole is a kind of epitome of the history of the German Empire. The 'projector of the design' was Hans Stabius, who calls himself the historiographer and poet of the Emperor. The work was begun in 1515—four years before the Emperor's death—and was not quite finished at the time of the death of the artist in 1528. Although we do not see the greatest excellence of Dürer's peculiar genius in this immense production executed to order, for it is too full of German fantasies and very unlike the classic simplicity of the old Roman arches, it will be found to contain the finest work of the wood-engraver at that period. Some parts of it are of a marvellous delicacy that can hardly be surpassed.

THE GATE OF FAME (From the 'Triumphal Arch' by Albrecht Dürer. Engraved by Jerome Andre.)
THE GATE OF FAME (From the 'Triumphal Arch' by Albrecht Dürer. Engraved by Jerome Andre.)

(From the 'Triumphal Arch' by Albrecht Dürer. Engraved by Jerome Andre.)

The 'Triumphal Car,' also designed by Dürer at the suggestion of Stabius, is a richly decorated chariot drawn by six pairs of horses. In it the Emperor in his imperial robes is seated under a canopy amid allegorical figures representing Justice, Truth, Clemency, Temperance, and the like, who offer to him triumphal wreaths. Over the canopy is an inscription: quod . in . celis . sol . Hoc . in . terra . Caesar . est. The Car is driven by Reason with Reins of Nobility and Power, and the horses are guided by female figures of Swiftness, Prudence, Boldness, and similar equine virtues. The whole of the design is seven feet four inches in length and about a foot and a half in height.

To modern eyes the car is not prepossessing, the figures of the attendant damsels are by no means elegant, and the horses would not, we fear, meet with the approval of English critics. It brings to us a reminiscence of the funeral car of the Duke of Wellington, which, we remember, was designed by a German artist. Some parts of the decorations are excellent and the whole is well engraved.

The 'Triumphal Procession' is still more important. It consists of a series of one hundred and thirty-five large cuts, which, joined together, would cover in length one hundred and seventy-five feet (upwards of 58 yards!) A herald, mounted on a fantastic, four-footed winged gryphon, leads the procession; next follow two led horses bearing a tablet with these words, doubtless by Stabius: 'This Triumph has been made for the praise and everlasting memory of the noble pleasures and glorious victories of the most serene and illustrious prince and lord, Maximilian, Roman Emperor elect, and head of Christendom, King and Heir of seven Christian kingdoms, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy and of other grand principalities and provinces of Europe.' More horses follow, then come falconers with hawks on their wrists, hunters of the chamois and the bear, behind them are elks and buffaloes, richly caparisoned stags four abreast, and camels drawing decorated chariots in which ride the musicians.

HORSEMEN, THREE ABREAST, WITH BANNERS (From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)
HORSEMEN, THREE ABREAST, WITH BANNERS (From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)

(From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)

The Emperor's favourite jester, Conrad von der Rosen, follows on horseback, bearing an immense flag; then come fools, fencing-masters, and soldiers of all kinds armed for every service, horsemen three abreast, with banners inscribed with the names of the great battles which the Emperor had won, cars filled with trophies taken from conquered nations, among them the 'Savages of Calicut'—natives of India—one of them riding a huge elephant, and numerous other figures filled up the immense length of the engraving.

THE SAVAGES OF CALICUT (From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)
THE SAVAGES OF CALICUT (From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)

(From 'The Triumphal Procession' by Burgkmair. Cut by Dienecker and other engravers)

The whole work, though evidently intended to be a glorification of the great Emperor, is much more valuable to us at the present day as a marvellous record of the barbaric magnificence of the middle ages, and an outward aspect of secular life. 'The ideal of worldly power and splendour, the spirit of pleasure and festival, is shown forth in this marvellously varied march of laurelled horses and horsemen, whose trappings and armour have the beauty and glitter of peaceful parade. There is nowhere else a work which so presents at once the feudal spirit and feudal delights in such exuberance of picturesque and feudal display.'

Dürer's designs for the 'Prayer-book of Maximilian' also claim a short notice. Only three copies of the work are known to be in existence, one of which is in the British Museum. The margins are full of fanciful designs; amid intertwining branches, birds are singing, apes are climbing, snakes creeping, and gnats flying. King David is charming a stork with his harp; a fox is playing a flute to poultry. It is a curious mixture of the sacred and profane, for which Dürer has often been censured. The engraving of the subjects, which are in outline, is excellent.

  1. It was printed, with descriptions in black-letter, at the Chiswick Press, and published by Joseph Cundall, 12 Old Bond Street, 1840.