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Early Popular Imagery


Graphic art is "popular" because it is relatively inexpensive and therefore available to a much wider public than is true of paintings or sculpture. Woodcut, its oldest and most primitive technique, can simply be stamped or rubbed onto sheets of paper, and these began to appear in Europe almost simultaneously with the construction of the first paper mills in northern Europe (France, c. 1348, Germany, 1390), many printed in monasteries as prayer sheets or pilgrim souvenirs.


Indulgenced images were especially popular, since they were presumed to confer on the beholder benefits from the "treasury of grace" (excess grace earned by Christ and the saints) to buy released time from temporal punishment in purgatory. Martin Luther, in his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), railed against both the abuse of indulgences and the sale of pilgrim sheets: "Ofttimes they [the pope and Rome] 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. . . ." He goes on later to say, "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 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."

The majority of indulgenced images dealt with subjects actually approved by the papacy, for example the engraved pilgrim sheets in three different sizes and price ranges, made for the anniversary of the monastery at Einsiedeln, Switzerland, by Master E. S. (1466). The sudarium (veil of St. Veronica, believed to be imprinted with Christ's face) was especially popular, and was depicted even by Albrecht Dürer (c. 1512) and Hans Burgkmair (c. 1505), as well as by Hans Sebald Beham as a close-up of Christ's face alone (Head of Christ, 1520).

Well before 1500, however, unscrupulous print-makerswere producing images of theirowndevising, complete with "statistics" regarding released time and/or miraculous effects. A Swabian woodcut of the Sacred Heart (Washington, D.C., National Gallery) depicts modules for calculating both "the true length of Christ's corpse," as well as the wound in his side, and as a fringe benefit promises protection from the plague as well as seven years' release from purgatory. Other images with extraordinary properties included depictions of St. Christopher, who couldprotect one from dying "an evil death" (that is, without the opportunity to make confession), or of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, each of whom was a specialist in protection against a different ailment or dilemma (for example, St. Denis for insanity, St. Erasmus for intestinal problems, and St. Vitus for epilepsy and dog bites). Images of one's own patron saint or guild or city patron were talismanic as well, and depictions of the noli me tangere (Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene, saying "Don't touch me") have been found pasted into the lids of strongboxes and travelers' trunks, where they evidently served as insurance against theft. Woodcuts of the Crucifixion were also pasted into the lids of such boxes, perhaps to serve as portable altarpieces for private meditation.

Practitioners of the devotio moderna (a fourteenth-century movement for the personal renewal of spiritual life) could choose from a variety of woodcuts depicting Christ carrying his cross alonewithout the usual procession of soldiers, Pharisees and government officialsas a metaphor for patience in bearing one's own burdens in daily life, as taught by Thomas à Kempis's Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ, 1441). Popular eucharistic images included Christ in the Winepress, apparently based on a quotation from St. John Damascene identifying Jesus as "the grape of Life . . . squeezed in the winepress as the grape of the True Vine." A related theme, the Host Mill, explained the miracle of transubstantiation in terms of a flourmill that processes grain into holy wafers. All of these, as well as images of the Mass of St. Gregory, during which the consecrated bread miraculously metamorphosed into the living image of Christ, and series prints of the Twelve Apostles, each labeled with his own supposed contribution to the wording of the Apostles' Creed, were of particular value for the education of the new communicant. Rosary brotherhoods as well as practitioners of the cult of the Five Wounds (of Christ) were similarly educational.

Much less respectable was the short-lived cult of the Beautiful Virgin of Regensburg, whose chapel was built on the site of a synagogue razed in 1519 and whose prayer sheet was an elaborate, multi-colored woodcut by Albrecht Altdorfer. Her votive offerings (workmen's tools, wooden legs, crutches, etc.) and ecstatic rites were depicted in a woodcut by Michael Ostendorfer, one impression of which bears an inscription in Albrecht Dürer's hand: "This spectre arose in Regensburg against Holy Writ . . . God help us that we may not dishonor His Holy Mother. Amen."

While prints of all kinds were much less numerous in Italy than in Germany, images of the newly canonized St. Catherine of Siena (13471380, canonized 1461) and of the "people's preacher," St. Bernardino of Siena (13801444, canonized 1450), and of the fictitious St. Julian the Hospitaler, supposed patron of innkeepers, ferrymen, and circus performers, were among the exceptions. Anti-Semitic woodcuts were produced on both sides of the Alps; those depicting the supposed ritual murder of young Simon of Trent by a group of Jews, and those referencing "the Jewish sow" were two of the more popular themes.

Broadsheets and single-sheet woodcuts without text appealed both to the illiterate and the semiliterate and could be more or less informativeas in the case of Dürer's woodcut of The Nativity of Syphilis, which depicts a man with the symptoms of the new disease, but implies that it was caused by a conjunction of the planets.

Greeting cards constituted another category of popular print, with New Year's wishes showing the infant Christ holding a bird, riding a donkey, or seated inside an image of the heart being most frequently preserved. A unique woodcut is the famous "Power of Venus" valentine (c. 1460, Vienna), depicting a young lover's appeal to "Frau Venus" while surrounded by depictions of human hearts undergoing all sorts of tortures, and accompanied by some of the century's most truly dreadful poetry. This, however, is better classified among the numerous "Power of Women" and "Battle of the Sexes" images that became popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Such themes include various combinations of unequal lovers as well as the more modern subject of the "Battle for the Breeches."

Decks of playing cards were in great demand, but have survived only when not used for play (for example, the engraved sets by the Master of the Playing Cards, Master PW of Cologne, Telman de Wesel, and Peter Flötner). In some cases in sixteenth-century sets, the face cards included bawdy imagery, which added a new dimension to their use.


Signs of the imminent end of the world have always been of popular concern, and in the sixteenth century these included continuing interest in the late medieval concept of the Antichrist, and of the equally venerable theme of the World Upside-Down. The Antichrist survived the Reformation to emerge in Lucas Cranach's Passional, Christi and Antichrist, with text by Philipp Melanchthon. Comets were another ill omen, such as the one that marked the 1468 meeting between Pope Pius II and the emperor Frederick III, depicted in a political cartoon of the day. Other such ominous signs included both human and animal misbirths: the Siamese twins who shared a single leg, Dürer's sixlegged Monstrous Sow of Landser, and the supposed discovery in 1496 of a monstrous creature with a woman's torso, the head of a donkey, one cloven hoof, and an eagle's claw, immortalized in Wenzel von Olmütz's engraving titled Roma Caput Mundi. After the dangerous year of 1500feared by many as the possible end of the worldhad safely passed, and been replaced by the issues of the early Reformation, this creature was recycled by the Cranach workshop as The Papal Ass (1523), and similar monsters were invented to accompany it, including The Monk Calf (Das Munchkalb zu Freyberg), The Seven-Headed Dr. Martin Luther, and The Two-Headed Cardinal-Fool. In a similar vein were caricatures of the pope riding a sow, or devouring the dead (gaining from endowed masses and indulgences), the pope as a wild man or as the Harlot of Babylon, and the devil playing a monstrous bagpipethe tonsured head of a monk (London, British Museum). The time-honored image of the Ship of Salvation (for example in Nuremberg, 1512) was parodied in imagery inspired by Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools (Basel, 1494) in an unflattering broadsheet, "The Catholic Church as Fishers of Men," which depicts the laity as existing only to be exploited by Catholic clergy. Matthias Gerung (1540) contrasted The Shipwreck of the Papal Church with The Ship of Christ (London, British Museum). Alternatively, equally tasteless caricatures were produced in the Catholic camp, including Luther as Winesack (a rotund Martin Luther with a goblet in one hand, trundling his belly in a wheelbarrowa reference to his advocacy of communion for the laity in both bread and wine), and The Two-Headed Luther (Strasbourg, 1522). When the head is inverted, a second head in a fool's cap appears, in the spirit of Thomas Murner's Great Lutheran Fool. A woodcut from the Cranach workshop, on the other hand, personifies Lutheranism by depicting Luther preaching while both bread and wine are administered to the laity, as simultaneously the Catholic clergyincluding the popefall into a gigantic hell mouth. Trick woodcuts with movable flaps were produced by both Catholic and Lutheran sympathizers to produce indecent exposure on images of, respectively, Luther or a mendicant friar or nun. In addition to those made in Wittenberg under the auspices of the Cranach workshop, many anti-Catholic broadsheets and caricatures were produced in Nuremberg (which lay at the crossroads of the Holy Roman Empire) with the assistance of a readymade distribution network, a paper mill, a sympathetic city council, and Germany's largest publishing house.


Nuremberg was also a center of peasant imagery, premiered in its late-fifteenth-century carnival plays and transposed into woodcuts by, among others, the politically radical young Beham brothers. Too expensive by far for the actual peasantry to acquire for themselves, Sebald Beham's Nose Dance at Fools' Town (1534), issued with verses by Hans Sachs, his Large Peasant Kermess (1535; also known as The Village Fair ) and Peasants of Mögelsdorf, and his brother Barthel's Peasant Holiday call attention to inelegant behavior as well as to the consequences of excessive eating and drinking by the peasantry, newly rendered harmless by the suppression of the Peasants' War (1525). Sebald Beham's Allegory of Monasticism, in which a monk rejects Poverty in favor of Pride, Luxury, and Avarice, and his Christ and the Sheepfold, with its text by Hans Sachs (based on John 10:110) leave no doubt as to the confessional sympathies of his buyers. Leonhard Beck's The Monk and His Maid (1523) and The Monk and the Ass (1523) make much the same point.

Images of mercenary soldiers, however, could be valorized by both camps, although the living soldiers most highly sought after were Swiss and Protestant. Scenes of mercenaries on parade or in recruitment were treated in sixteenth-century woodcuts, sometimes with Hans Sachs's texts, by Erhard Schön, Sebald Beham, Hans Holbein the Younger, and others, and were a specialty (together with depictions of the inevitable camp followers) of Urs Graf, who was himself a mercenary soldier. Niklas Stör depicted a cobbler and a tailor who each explain the reasons (economic) for deserting their trades in order to become mercenaries. (Urs Graf had been a goldsmith.) Martin Luther, who early on had been critical of the sale of indulgences to finance a papal crusade against the Turks, and who continued to maintain that Christians should not wage war in Christ's name, came to believe by the 1520s that it was fitting and proper that soldiers should go to war if ordered to do so by their ruler ("Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved," 1526; "An Army Sermon against the Turks," 1529). The graphic response was Hans Holbein the Younger's woodcut of Martin Luther as the German Hercules (1523, Zurich).

See also Caricature and Cartoon ; Catholicism ; Dissemination of Knowledge ; Dürer, Albrecht ; Humor ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Marvels and Wonders ; Miracles ; Peasantry ; Popular Culture ; Printing and Publishing ; Reformation, Protestant .


Andersson, Christiane. "Polemical Prints in Reformation Nuremberg." In New Perspectives on the Art of Renaissance Nuremberg: Five Essays, edited by Jeffrey Chipps Smith, pp. 4162. Austin, Tex., 1985.

Dackerman, Susan, and Thomas Primeau. Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings & Woodcuts. Exh. cat. University Park, Pa., 2002.

Field, Richard. Fifteenth Century Woodcuts and Metalcuts from the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1965. Catalogue of the collection.

Geisberg, Max. The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 15001550. 4 vols. Edited and revised by Walter L. Strauss. New York, 1974.

Goddard, Stephen, ed. The World in Miniature: Engravings by the German Little Masters, 15001550. Exh. cat. Lawrence, Kans., 1988.

Martin Luther und die Reformation in Deutschland. Exh. cat. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum. 1983.

Moxey, Keith. Peasants, Warriors and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation. Chicago, 1989.

Scribner, Robert W. For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Stewart, Alison. "The First 'Peasant Festivals': Eleven Woodcuts Produced in Reformation Nuremberg by Barthel and Sebald Beham and Erhard Schön, c. 1524 to 1535." Ph.D. dissertation. New York, 1986.

Zschelletzschky, Herbert. Die "Drei gottlosen Maler" von Nürnberg. Leipzig, 1975.

Jane Campbell Hutchison

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