Printed Images and Books. Most histories of printed images begin with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, but printing textiles from woodblocks was a technique that dates back to the sixth century. In the later Middle Ages woodblocks were widely used to reproduce religious images that were hand-colored and sold to the public. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century woodcuts were usually single-sheet prints, but the production of picture books known as block books were an important craft in
the Lowlands. One of the most popular block books was the Biblia Pauperum (Bible of the Poor) in which New Testament scenes were inscribed in the middle of an architectural frame surrounded by Old Testament images and explanatory text. Eleven editions of the Biblia Pauperum were printed in the fifteenth century. Members of the minor clergy were often the intended audience for such editions. Other block books include manuals on the art of dying, the Apocalypse, and medieval parables. In Germany, woodcut prints were also used on cards expressing New Year's wishes.
Printing Techniques. Woodcuts were produced by a relief process in which a drawing traced on smooth wood was carved away to leave the dominant lines of the figure being depicted. The block was inked and printed with a reverse image. The sturdy qualities of this technique allowed for large quantities of prints to be produced. Printers employed professional block-cutters to produce these images in wood. Graphic artists usually supplied the designs. Nuremberg artist Albrecht Durer produced many inexpensive religious woodcuts with traditional medieval markets in mind. In the late 1490s he revised the images devoted to the traditional subjects of the Passion and Apocalypse with new techniques and stylistic innovations that created greater pictorial effect through large-scale prints. These woodcuts were intended for a less literate audience, and his thematic choices recognized popular interests. He pioneered new technical innovations in the intaglio productions of engraving on metal plates as well. These engravings were directed at a highly educated humanist audience that was developing an interest in collecting prints.
Innovations and Technology. In the late fifteenth century, artists such as Israhel van Meckenem and Martin Schongauer were developing reputations as skilled engravers. Engraved prints required more careful work than the woodcut. Both material and labor costs were more demanding and expensive. Engraved work by goldsmiths and artisans on such items as plates, armor, and mortuary monuments were related to intaglio practices. Early engravings competed with manuscript illuminations for collectors’ attentions. Sometimes they were pasted in books in place of manuscript illuminations. In a similar fashion, woodcuts were an inexpensive substitute for paintings and were pasted on walls and domestic furnishings. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries woodcuts remained a popular medium of book illustration, but the technological potential of engraving for printing illustrated books advanced the communication revolution inherent in the invention of the press. This advance was another major feature in the internationalization of artistic language and humanist culture.
Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting From Pucelle to Eruegel: Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968).
Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).