King's College London
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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

The Halberstadt Bible

A woodcut is a design cut in relief on a block of wood, using a pointed chisel, or graver, the block then being placed in a press for printing. The more common method for most of the hand press era was the positive woodcut, when the parts of the design that were to remain white on the printed paper were gouged away with the graver, leaving those that were to be printed with ink left standing. The other method was the negative woodcut, sometimes known as wood engraving, where the design was incised on the block with the graver, so that when printed on paper, it would appear as a pattern of white lines on the otherwise inked page.

Both woodcuts and wood engravings could be printed using the same press as was used to print text with movable type, thus enabling text and illustration to be combined easily on one page and obviating the need for the printer to utilise a separate press for the printing of illustrations.

Woodcut illustration of a scene from the Book of Exodus with various characters in contemporary dressWoodcut illustration of a Biblical scene from the Book of ExodusThe ease with which woodcuts could be integrated with text on a single page made them ideal for illustrations of a didactic nature, those which supplemented a narrative or those which could be viewed and enjoyed together by reader and listeners in a domestic or scholastic setting.

Biblical illustrations fulfilled all these functions, and in northern Europe, where stained glass windows had long been used to convey the Bible narrative to medieval congregations, many illustrated Bibles were produced in the first century of printing, continuing this pictorial tradition. It was particularly common for vernacular Bibles to be illustrated, as they were aimed at readers for whom sustained study of the printed page might be an unfamiliar occupation;  illustrations helped to break up the text and to aid understanding.

Woodcut illustration of the infant Moses being lifted from the bulrushes, with crowds of people around the sceneWoodcut illustration of the infant Moses among the bulrushes, as pictured in the Book of ExodusOn display here are images from the Halberstadt Bible, a vernacular Bible in Low (or northern) German. The last of the pre-Lutheran German translations of the Bible, it was printed only two months before the publication of Luther’s first translation of the Bible, the Septembertestament.

Printers liked to use blocks of a hard, fine-grained wood, such as box or pear, and, if well looked after, blocks could have a long life and were sometimes handed down from printer to printer. The Halberstadt Bible was heavily reliant in both text and illustration on earlier Low German Bibles, and many of its 136 woodcuts were taken from blocks used by the printers of the influential 1477-8 Köln Bible, though others were specially commissioned from the illustrator Conrad Drake.

Individual woodcuts were also repeated within the Halberstadt Bible itself;  Drake’s depiction of St Jerome, for example, appears nearly twenty times, functioning as a visual assertion of the primacy of the Vulgate text, of which St Jerome was the author and the Halberstadt Bible a translation.

The images on display are from the book of Exodus, and the simple woodcuts illustrate the finding of the infant Moses among the bulrushes. The illustrator has followed contemporary convention in dressing his figures in the fashions of his day and placing them before a background of northern European buildings. Like a medieval stained glass window, each woodcut shows more than one episode in the narrative and should be ‘read’ from left to right.

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