Blockbooks of the Low Countries
The blockbook editions of the Speculum humanæ salvationis cannot be analyzed without investigating, at least briefly, the blockbooks which preceded them or were being made concurrently. There were some thirty-three xylographic books of different origins, of which about one hundred examples are known. Among these a significant number were produced in the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. Very few of these are dated, but in a general chronological order those which were the most widely distributed in chiro-xylographic and xylographic editions were as follows: the Apocalypse , the Exercitium super Pater Noster , the Spirituale pomerium , the Ars moriendi , the Biblia pauperum , the Canticum canticorum , and the Speculum humanæ salvationis . All are printed on one side of the paper only, or anapistographically. But with the Speculum humanæ salvationis a new phenomenon appears in the history of the blockbook and the history of printing. In the Speculum the woodcuts were printed as in other blockbooks, by rubbing the paper placed on the block which was coated with water-based ink. But the Speculum text was printed from movable metal characters in varnish-based ink, on a printing press. Its production will be discussed in Chapter V.
The blockbooks described in this Chapter are related to the Speculum in various ways: in purpose, in content, or in artistic style. They were all devoted to the propagation of the faith through pictures and text. They all interpreted events drawn from the Bible or other sources in medieval religious thought. The woodcut pictures in all were meaningful even to the illiterate and semi-literate, and they aided clerics and preaching monks to dramatise their sermons.
The artists arranged the scenes in ways which were faithful to tradition but which show a variety of models and sources. Whether the cutters of the pictures were also the designers cannot be determined, but in the simplicity of composition and the strength of line, they created styles strikingly appropriate to the discipline of cutting in wood.
The editions of the blockbooks described here have been tabulated with reference to the localization of examples and other detailed information by W. L. Schreiber and Arthur M. Hind, to whose works the reader is referred for more documentation.
The Apocalypse is a xylographic book printed from full-page blocks carrying two horizontal pictures, and with the texts usually cut in framed rectangles within the picture borders. The images are done in outline with no shading or cross-hatching and there is no background landscape. There were six editions of the blockbook, the last three probably German. All have forty-eight leaves, except the third which has fifty and a revised text. It was copied from the earlier editions by an equally skilled cutter who probably is responsible for cutting both the text and the images (fig. IV-1). The second edition is printed from the same blocks as the first but with signature marks added (the same letter appears within facing pages on a sheet).
It is generally agreed among scholars that the Apocalypse is the most ancient of the blockbooks although there is wide divergence of opinion on the date of the first edition, ranging from about 1400 to as late as 1450–52. Manuscripts of the Apocalypse seem to have originated in northern France and in England and were very popular. From manuscripts, of which a typical example is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Auct. D 4.17), the fantastic and bizarre subjects, texts, and the format of the blockbooks were derived. The style, the composition, and the iconography of the pictures were inspired by models in both manuscripts and tapestries, such as the numerous versions listed in the inventories of the collections of the Dukes of Burgundy. In fact the woodcuts are closely related to the famous Apocalypse tapestries at Angers, made about 1380 by Nicolas Bataille, after the miniatures or drawings of an artist working for the Burgundian Court, Jean Bandol, called Hennequin de Bruges.
Exercitium Super Pater Noster
Two editions of this blockbook are preserved. They each contain a series of ten woodcuts interpreting the Lord's Prayer, with explanatory texts. The first edition is chiro-xylographic with Flemish text written beneath the woodcuts, but the banderoles in the pictures are in Latin. The unique copy, lacking, however, leaves 1 and 9, is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (fig. IV-3). The style of the miniatures has been related to that of Robert Campin of Tournai (the Master of Flémalle). According to Delen, the costumes are typical of the early years of the fifteenth century.
Of the second edition, two copies exist, one at the Bibliothèque, Université de l'Etat à Mons, which has the Latin text above the image and the Flemish translation below (fig. IV-4). In the other copy, that of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the text beneath the image has been cut off, presumably by someone with a strong prejudice against the vernacular. In this edition, evidently produced some years after the first, the woodcut pictures are much more elaborate. While the compositions are based on the first set of blocks, the costumes and the diagonal parallel lines of shading indicate a later date. The text is cut in the wood within rectangles and banderoles.
Between these blocks and those of the Spirituale pomerium there is a strong similarity of artistic style which suggests that both books may have been produced by one artist or atelier chosen by the author, who was presumably responsible for both texts (see figs. IV-3, 4, 5, and the text on the Spirituale pomerium ). Evidence points to the origin of the two Exercitium editions in the communities of the Devotio moderna at either Sept-Fontaines or Groenendael (near Brussels), or both. This is adduced from the Flemish text, the character of the work that indicates its usage by preaching clerics, and the attribution of its authorship to Hendrik van den Bogaerde (1382–1469). After ten years as Prior of Sept-Fontaines, Bogaerde was named Prior of Groenendael in 1431. A catalogue listing his writings, which has been preserved, includes both an Exercitium super Pater Noster and the Spirituale pomerium . Possibly under his direction, the first edition may have been produced at Sept-Fontaines and the second at Groenendael. The first set of blocks may have been lost or considered unsuitable for the new text in both Latin and Flemish. Each of these communities was a center of book production, with an impressive library of manuscripts.
Strictly classified, the Spirituale pomerium is not a chiro-xylographic book but a manuscript of twenty-five leaves in which twelve block prints are variously mounted, at the head, the middle, or the foot of the pages. This would indicate that the scribe planned the layout of the text to include the pictures. The images are printed on the same kind of paper as the text. The only copy is at the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels.
In an inscription on the verso of the first page is the name "Henricus ex Pomerio" by which Van den Bogaerde was also known. As already noted, the text of the Exercitium super Pater Noster has also been ascribed to him. At the end of the Spirituale pomerium is the following statement in Latin without the proper contraction marks: explicit sp(irit)uale pomeriu(m) editu(m) anno d(omi)ni m ccccxl . Many authorities agree that the woodblocks may be dated from about the same time as the manuscript, 1440.
The subject of this mystical tract is the divine blessings. The xylographic text at the base of each block states the three blessings which are symbolized by three apples, and are intended to inspire spiritual meditation for the twelve hours of the day. The blocks show four scenes drawn from the Old Testament and eight from the New. Each one contains a tree beneath which a pious soul, represented by a young girl, gathers the three apples of the divine benefactions. On successive pages are pictured twelve biblical events from the Creation to the Coronation of the Virgin, each explained by texts in banderoles cut in the block.
As in the case of the woodcuts of the Exercitium second edition, the artistic style has been related to the work of Roger van der Weyden, who had a known connection with the monastery of Groenendael where one of his paintings was preserved. It is recorded that after his death in 1464, masses were said there for his soul. The style has also been associated with the work of the Master of the Redemption, named for an altarpiece in the Prado, who, in turn, has been thought to be Vrancke van der Stockt. He was a student of Van der Weyden and succeeded him as the master painter of Brussels. If the designs for the Spirituale were made about 1440, either Van der Weyden or Van der Stockt could have been the artist.
The first edition of the xylographic Ars moriendi is acknowledged by some art historians as the great masterpiece of the Netherlandish blockbooks. It was extremely popular (some twenty editions are known), no doubt because of the pervasive fear of death from the plagues and pestilences which ravaged Europe from 1347 until the seventeenth century. The book appeared later in many editions with typographically printed text, some using copies of the original woodcuts. Priests, called constantly to the bedsides of the moribund, used the pictures and texts to help prepare the pious for the hereafter.
The Weigel copy of the blockbook in the British Library is probably the oldest, produced about 1450 (fig. IV-6). It is in Latin, but subsequent editions are known in French, Dutch, and German. Thirteen groups of blocks with text banderoles were used in the twenty blockbook editions. They were printed on one side of the paper facing a page of xylographic text. In the first ten scenes the pictures show the devil and his demons trying to seize the soul of the dying man through temptations, and the attendants giving good counsel at the deathbed. The eleventh picture is of the triumph over all temptations in the hour of death. The text, thought to have been inspired by the writings of Jean Gerson (1363–1429), was intended to serve as a manual for clerics.
The Ars moriendi occupies a special place in the history of woodcuts and of the blockbooks. Unlike most of the others it is not concerned with typology or Old Testament prophecy, or with the Gospels. The artist drew the subjects and compositions from a series of eleven small engravings of about 1440 by the Master E.S., the only complete set of which is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (fig. IV-7). The vigor and refinement of the blockbook pictures surpass the level of the engravings of the Master E. S.; faulty perspective is corrected and text banderoles are added. It has been suggested that these fine blocks should be attributed to the immediate entourage of Roger van der Weyden, although, among the thirteen groups of illustrations, several different styles may be found.
The name Biblia pauperum was used as early as the thirteenth century for various typological summaries of the Bible which might perhaps have been more accurately called Biblia picta , a title which appears in the manuscript of this work in Munich. It was by no means as popular in its manuscript form as the Speculum humanæ salvationis . Some sixty-eight surviving manuscripts were documented in 1925, but the blockbook editions appear to have been even more widely distributed than the Ars moriendi . The ten xylographic editions depend upon a single prototype and have forty anapistographic pages. Most of these are of a small square folio size, and within the framed architectural arrangement of the pictures, the text is carved in banderoles and rectangular units (fig. IV-8). They recount the story of the Fall and Redemption through the life of Christ, the central New Testament subject being flanked by scenes of Old Testament prefigurations, with portraits and predictions of four prophets, usually two above and two below.
Another edition of the Biblia pauperum consists of fifty pages, in which the ten extra subjects are partly borrowed from the Speculum and which survives in a unique copy at the Bibliothèque Nationale. A chiro-xylographic edition, of German origin, in thirty-four leaves is found in a single copy in Heidelberg, which is dated as early as 1420 by Musper, but which is thought to have been made in the late 1460's by Hind and Koch. For the Netherlandish editions, scholars' dates vary from 1440 to 1480.
Research by art historians has brought to light some interesting relationships between dated illuminated manuscripts and the blockbook woodcuts. One of these is the richly decorated manuscript usually referred to as the Hours of Mary van Vronensteyn. It was originally owned by Jan van Amerongen, sheriff of Utrecht from 1468 to 1470, and his shears device can be seen on his cloak (Plate IV-2). The date of the manuscript, 1460, is taken from its Sunday calendar in which a pointing hand is directed to the year 60 in the part dealing with the fifteenth century. Van Amerongen married Mechtelt Hendricksdr of Ghent, but they had no children and she left the Book of Hours to her niece Maria van Raephorst, who in 1520 married Lubbert de Wael van Vronensteyn. Thereby the manuscript acquired its name.
Among the historiated initials there are some in which the pictures appear to be copied from certain scenes in the forty-leaf edition of the blockbook Biblia pauperum (fig. IV-9).
The artist of the twelve full-page illustrations of the Hours has been credited with certain miniatures in the Dutch Bible of Evert van Soudenbalch, now in Vienna, and with the painting of the Calvary, now in the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design at Providence (fig. IV-10). To this artist is attributed the Christ Nailed to the Cross now in the Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool, and a mural painting, after 1453, of the Tree of Jesse in the Buurkerk in Utrecht (fig. IV-11). This group of paintings is related to a triptych of the Crucifixion, at Utrecht, which shows a view of the town and must be dated 1460–1465. Between 1455 and 1470 the only painter known to have received commissions from the Buurkerk was Hillebrant van Rewijk and he therefore might be considered the creator of the works above. His son may have been the better-known Erhard van Rewijk or Reuwich who made the famous woodcuts for Breydenbach's Peregrinationes in Terram Sanctam , which were printed under his name at the press of Peter Schöffer in Mainz in 1486. It has been suggested that the miniatures, mentioned above, of the Evert van Soudenbalch Bible and the full-page pictures of the Vronensteyn Hours might be his juvenile work.
The two editions of the Canticum canticorum are printed in a brownish ink, from two sets of sixteen blocks of Netherlandish origin. The thirty-two scenes are placed as two horizontal panels on each page. In the banderoles are text verses drawn directly from the Song of Songs. There is no typology in the concepts, but rather the Old and New Testaments seem to be merged in the symbolism of Mary as the Bride and Jesus as the Church.
The medieval interpretation of the Song of Songs as prefiguration of the New Testament was the subject of many religious treatises. The passionate metaphors of devotion in the verses were interpreted as expressing God's love for his people, or Christ's love for his Church, and Mary is elsewhere seen as a symbol of the Church. The cult of the Virgin, which appeared in the twelfth century and developed throughout the thirteenth, was extensively drawn from the writings of St. Bernard (1090–1153) on the Song of Songs, in which he applied many of its references to the Virgin Mary as the Bride.
In the woodcuts Mary wears a nimbus and a crown and is accompanied by tall maidens (Song of Songs I, 3). Jesus is identified by the nimbus with a cross which always symbolized one of the Trinity: Father, Son, or Holy Ghost. Since his robes are like those of the maidens, only this nimbus distinguishes Christ from the other figures in the scenes. The blocks were probably made in a religious community, for in the first picture, at the right, appear Brothers occupied with the work of the harvest (fig. IV-12).
The first edition of the Canticum is much superior to the second in simplicity of composition and the grace and elegance of the figures. It has been considered an artistic masterpiece, with all the poetry of the Song of Songs captured in these blocks. The artist can be associated with the first artist of the Speculum woodcuts, or at least with the atelier where he worked (fig. IV-13).
In style of design and cutting there are striking likenesses to the Biblia pauperum and to the Speculum humanæ salvationis . The background trees as little pyramids of horizontal strokes, the tufts of small straight lines indicating grasses, the lines of drapery, the rectangular slabs of earth or stone in the landscape, the shading of walls and figures with short horizontal lines, the leaded windows and tiled floors of the interiors, all show some consistent techniques which unite these three blockbooks and suggest that they should be assigned to the same circle of artists and/or engravers. The addition of several varieties of plants in the Canticum that do not occur in the Biblia pauperum seems to place it later. The Speculum editions, with text printed in a press, may have been later still, but the blocks may have been made long before that took place, since they show a less sophisticated style than those of the Canticum .
The Dating of Blockbooks
Scholars in several fields have made studies attempting to date the blockbooks by various methods but a survey has demonstrated how vague and arbitrary are the criteria on which the dating has been done in the past. In the cases of the Spirituale pomerium and the Exercitium super Pater Noster the inscriptions of Henry van den Bogaerde established a date. But where there is no information from provenance, church celebrations, or archives, art historians have often based their conclusions on such evidence as drapery folds with hooks or loops, horizontal or vertical shading with hatching, correctness of perspective, or linear style, all of which assume a sort of steady and predictable "evolution" or development of woodcut art. But it is unreasonable to assume that these elements evolved in identical stages in the various ateliers of the time, particularly during any single decade. On the contrary, we may assume that there were concurrently artists and ateliers where there was innovation, and others which clung to earlier traditions. To this must be added the consideration of whether the work was done by copying a miniature or model, or conceived originally.
The watermarks of papers, when their date is established by comparison with a dated sheet in which an identical mark appears, show only the date before which the printing of a particular leaf could not have been done. The blocks may have been designed and cut a few years or decades before the paper was made, and the printing could have been done long afterwards.
In recent years several art historians have studied intensively the relationship of blockbooks to miniatures in manuscripts of which the completion date is known, or can be logically assumed, as well as to Dutch and Flemish painting of the period. In the case of the Speculum there has also been extensive research into its relationship with the earliest printing in the Netherlands. The Speculum editions are explored in the following chapter through study of the types, the text printing, the papers, and the woodcuts.