Darkness and Light: The European World of 15th-Century Woodcuts

Detail from Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from “The Apocalypse” (series) c. 1496/1498 (published 1511). Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

This is a guest post by Stephanie Stillo, curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 15th century Europe spawned a rich variety of typefaces that fostered regional differences in woodcut illustrations. These represent one of the most exciting eras in the history of books.

To start, let’s consider the dark gothic typeface employed in Northern Europe at the time. It paired well with the thick and pronounced lines of German and Netherlandish woodcuts. For example, in 1483 printer and publisher Anton Sorg of Augsburg printed the “Concilium zu Constanz” (Council of Konstanz), which documented papal-sponsored meetings and festivals in the city of Konstanz, Germany, between 1414 and 1418. The events in Konstanz aimed to unify the Catholic Church after the election of three separate popes, a remarkable historical episode known as the Great Schism.

“Concilium zu Constanz,” Augsburg, Anton Sorg, 1483. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Konstanz festivities were documented by Ulrich of Richental, who attended the festivities and, quite possibly, church committee meetings. Likely working from Richental’s manuscript copy, Sorg printed an illustrated edition of the events in 1483.  Sorg’s “Concilium zu Constanz” employed a dark gothic type to accompany the heavy subject matter of the woodcuts illustrating everything from jousting tournaments to the execution of Bohemian Catholic dissenters Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague.

A little over a decade laterthe great Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius released the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” one of the finest, most unusual books of the 15th century. The two works demonstrate the often remarkable difference between Northern and Southern European woodcuts. The light and airy typeface of the “Hypnerotomachia” strikes a perfect balance with the elegant and enigmatic woodcuts that visualize the journey of young Poliphilo through a bizarre, dream-like landscape. The harmony between text and image can be credited most directly to type designer Francesco Griffo of Bologna, who created the crisp Roman-inspired type that paired seamlessly with the thin, delicate lines of 171 woodcuts. Despite the enduring fame of Manutius’ illustrated masterpiece, the identity of both the author and illustrator of the “Hypnerotomachia” is still a subject of intense debate. The list of leading suspects is august. Venetian Dominican priest and poet Francesco Colonna has been widely credited with writing the lyrical (and somewhat impenetrable) prose, while the illustrations have often been ascribed to famed Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Raphael.

Detail from “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.” Printed by Aldus Manutius, 1499. Author and illustrator unknown. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The graphic differences between Northern and Southern woodcuts fused in painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer. Dürer apprenticed under German woodcut artists Michael Wolgemut and was son-in-law to Nuremburg’s powerhouse publisher Anton Koberger. At the same time, the artist was singularly captivated by the linear perspective of Italian artists such as Mantegna, Gentile Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci.

Throughout his career, Dürer created masterful graphic works that fused the natural, well-proportioned Italian style with the bold, gothic form of his native Northern Europe. For example, immediately upon his return from his first sojourn in Venice, Dürer released what would become one of his most famous woodcut series, “Apocalipsis cum figure” in 1498.

Like much of his work, Dürer’s visionary illustrations for the “Apocalypse” were a product of his Northern roots and Southern exposure. The artist used Koberger’s 1483 illustrated Bible (printed with woodcuts from Heinrich Quentell’s famous 1478 Cologne Bible) as a graphic template for his “Apocalypse” series. Perhaps influenced by his Germanic exemplar, these woodcuts assert an undeniable Northern gothic flavor.

Albrecht Dürer. Detail from the Apocalypse [Apocalypsis] (series) c. 1496/1498 (published 1511). National Gallery of Art. Rosenwald Collection. 1980. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

However, the series also reveals Dürer’s fascination with the major tenets of Italian Renaissance art. The flat, fixed image of Koberger’s Bible are replaced by effusive and dimensional figures whose freedom of movement demand deeper inspection and contemplation. Additionally, Dürer crowded both background and foreground with vivid detail, extending the same care and consideration to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse as those being trampled under the harbingers of war, pestilence and death.

Taken together, these divergent woodcut designs demonstrate the profound experimentation in book production during the first 50 years after Gutenberg’s invention. Nowhere was this experimentation more apparent than in the illustrated books of the late 15th century. From the spectacular graphics of early block books to the metal cuts, paste prints, and woodcuts of the same period, experimentation in early printed books is a rich, liminal and exciting moment in the history of the book.

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