Art Appraiser & Art History Writer and Editor
Professional Editor, Writer and Appraiser of Fine Art


How Printmaking Began: Woodcuts

For the next five weeks we will be highlighting the very beginning of printmaking in the 15th Century. Woodcuts, engravings and etchings all had different beginnings, and we will explore each of these. At the end we will introduce the development of printing as a fine art.

Origins of the Woodcut:

Woodcuts were developed from printed textiles. Dating back to Roman times, textiles were printed from wood blocks that were inked and pressed onto linen. So, the technology for woodblock printing has existed for a long time, however, paper was not created in Europe until the 12th Century. Even then, paper was an expensive commodity when it was first developed and could not be used for mass printing. It wasn't until around the year 1400 that the first major printed image on paper was created. 

But, the beginning of printing on paper was not without issues. Printers didn't know what type of wood to use. It is hard to determine what they settled on, as there are not may early woodblocks that still exist, and it is difficult to determine the types of ancient woods. Most likely, pear or boxwood was used.  Another issues was how not to break the block. This is why thick lines were used in early woodcuts.

The Earliest European Woodcut:

The earliest known European woodcut

The earliest known European woodcut

The earliest known printed image from Europe is the above German print of St. Christopher from 1423. It is hand-colored, and depicts St. Christopher carrying Christ across the river on his back. It is currently in the collection of the University of Manchester and is preserved as an endpaper in a 1417 manuscript from Bohemia. 

Uses of Early Woodcuts:

So, what did they print? Playing cards and devotional subjects tend to be what survive. They were usually hand-colored. In the second half of the 15th Century, woodcut became tied to book printing, and was the preferred method for books as wood had more stamina that metal. You could get thousands of impressions whereas with engraving you could get only a few hundred.

Woodcut printing was also initially a source of cheap devotional images that were likely made in small monastery workshops or convents. They were meant for the religious community and its lay public. 

By the end of the 15th century there was a struggle with manuscripts as they each took on certain techniques of the other. 

The Issue of Survival:

Early prints were not meant to survive, and even very early prints that exist today still show that they have been trimmed, glued or tacked to walls. This is, in fact, how early prints were displayed in Early Modern homes. They replaced paintings or other works of art, and were glued or tacked to the wall for devotion or mere decoration. Owners of the prints would write on their prints, either with religious admiration or blasphemy. As Suzanna Karr Schmidt noted in Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life, an early example (the earliest in the University of Chicago's collection) that shows blasphemous annotations is a German print from circa 1460/70, titled The Lamb Receiving the Sealed Book, folio C from The Apocalypse. 

The Lamb Receiving the Sealed Book

The focal point of this hand-colored printed page was the lamb at the center of the composition accompanied by the phrase, "And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beats, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth". The owner of this image took his own pen and drew excrement below the Lamb's tail, a trope that appeared in Martin Luther's rhetoric. 

Overall, early prints were not handled as how we would handle many prints today--as works of art. They were items to be held, written on, adored and given they were made out of paper--a fragile medium--this accounts for the lack of many extant works of early prints today. 

Nonetheless, despite the fact the issues of studying early printmaking abound, many scholars have taken up this topic to delve much deeper into. Listed below is my biography used for this article as well as other sources for further reading on this topic. Enjoy!

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Parshall, Peter. The Woodcut in Fifteenth Century Europe. National Gallery of Art: Washington, 2009.

Schmidt, Suzanne Karr. Altered and Adorned Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life. The Art Institute of Chicago: Chicago, 2011.