On the Artistic Qualities of the Woodcut Books of Ulm and Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century

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(1834 - 1896)
William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain. (From : Wikipedia.org.)

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On the Artistic Qualities of the Woodcut Books of Ulm and Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century

The invention of printing books, and the use of wood-blocks for book ornament in place of hand-painting, though it belongs to the period of the degradation of medieval art, gave an opportunity to the Germans to regain the place which they had lost in the art of book decoration during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This opportunity they took with vigor and success, and by means of it put forth works which showed the best and most essential qualities of their race. Unhappily, even at the time of their first woodcut book, the beginning of the end was on them; about thirty years afterwards they received the Renaissance with singular eagerness and rapidity, and became, from the artistic point of view, a nation of rhetorical pedants. An exception must be made, however, as to Albert Dürer; for, though his method was infected by the Renaissance, his matchless imagination and intellect made him thoroughly Gothic in spirit.

Among the printing localities of Germany the two neighboring cities of Ulm and Augsburg developed a school of woodcut book ornament second to none as to character, and, I think, more numerously represented than any other. I am obliged to link the two cities, because the early school at least is common to both; but the ornamental works produced by Ulm are but few compared with the prolific birth of Augsburg.

It is a matter of course that the names of the artists who designed these wood-blocks should not have been recorded, any more than those of the numberless illuminators of the lovely written books of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the names under which the Ulm and Augsburg picture-books are known are all those of their printers. Of these by far the most distinguished are the kinsmen (their degree of kinship is not known), Gunther Zainer of Augsburg and John Zainer of Ulm. Nearly parallel with these in date are Ludwig Hohenwang and John Bämler of Augsburg, together with Pflanzmann of Augsburg, the printer of the first illustrated German Bible. Anthony Sorg, a little later than these, was a printer somewhat inferior, rather a reprinter in fact, but by dint of reusing the old blocks, or getting them recut and in some cases redesigned, not always to their disadvantage, produced some very beautiful books. Schonsperger, who printed right into the sixteenth century, used blocks which were ruder than the earlier ones, through carelessness, and I suppose probably because of the aim at cheapness; his books tend towards the chap-book kind.

The earliest of these picture-books with a date is Gunther Zainer's Golden Legend, the first part of which was printed in 1471; but, as the most important from the artistic point of view, I should name: first, Gunther Zainer's Speculum Humanae Salvationis (undated but probably of 1471); second, John Zainer's Boccaccio De Claris Mulieribus (dated in a cut, as well as in the colophon, 1473); third, the Esop, printed by both the Zainers, but I do not know by which first, as it is undated; fourth, Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des menschlichen Lebens (undated but about 1475), with which must be taken his German Belial, the cuts of which are undoubtedly designed by the same artist, and cut by the same hand, that cut the best in the Spiegel above mentioned; fifth, a beautiful little book, the story of Sigismund and Guiscard, by Gunther Zainer, undated; sixth, Taberinus, die Geschicht von Symon, which is the story of a late German Hugh of Lincoln, printed by G. Zainer about 1475; seventh, John Bämler's Das Buch der Natur (1475), with many full-page cuts of much interest; eighth, by the sameprinter, Das Buch von den 7 Todsünden und den 7 Tugenden (1474); ninth, Bämler's Sprenger's Rosencranz-Bruderschaft, with only two cuts, but those most remarkable.

To these may be added as transitional (in date at least), between the earlier and the later school next to be mentioned, two really characteristic books printed by Sorg: (a) Der Seusse, a book of mystical devotion, 1482, and (b) the Council of Constance, printed in 1483; the latter being, as far as its cuts are concerned, mainly heraldic.

At Ulm, however, a later school arose after a transitional book, Leonard Hol's splendid Ptolemy of 1482; of this school one printer's name, Conrad Dinckmut, includes all the most remarkable books: to wit, Der Seelen-wurzgarten (1483), Das buch der Weisheit (1485), the Swabian Chronicle (1486), Terence's Eunuchus (in German) (1486). Lastly, John Reger's Descriptio Obsidionis Rhodiae (1496) worthily closes the series of the Ulm books.

It should here be said that, apart from their pictures, the Ulm and Augsburg books are noteworthy for their border and letter decoration. The Ulm printer, John Zainer, in especial shone in the production of borders. His De Claris Mulieribus excels all other books of the school in this matter; the initial S of both the Latin and the German editions being the most elaborate and beautiful piece of its kind; and, furthermore, the German edition has a border almost equal to the S in beauty, though different in character, having the shield of Scotland supported by angels in the corner. A very handsome border (or half-border rather), with a zany in the corner, is used frequently in J. Zainer's books,1e.g. in the 1473 and 1474 editions of the Rationale of Durandus, and, associated with an interesting historiated initial O, in Alvarus, De planctu Ecclesiae, 1474. There are two or three other fine borders, such as those in Steinhowel's Büchlein der Ordnung, and Petrarch's Griseldis (here shown), both of 1473, and in Albertus Magnus, Summa de eucharistiae sacramento, 1474.

A curious alphabet of initials made up of leafage, good, but not very showy, is used in the De Claris Mulieribus and other books. An alphabet of large initials, the most complete example of which is to be found in Leonard Hol's Ptolemy, is often used and is clearly founded on the pen-letters, drawn mostly in red and blue, in which the Dutch `rubrishers' excelled.2 This big alphabet is very beautiful and seems to have been a good deal copied by other German printers, as it well deserved to be.3 John Reger's Caoursin has fine handsome `blooming-letters,' somewhat tending towards the French style.

In Augsburg Gunter Zainer has some initial I's of strap-work with foliation: they are finely designed, but gain considerably when, as sometimes happens, the spaces between the straps are filled in with fine pen-tracery and in yellowish brown; they were cut early in Gunther's career, as one occurs in the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, c. 1471, and another in the Calendar, printed 1471. These, as they always occur in the margin and are long, may be called border-pieces. A border occurring in Eyb, ob einem manne izu nemen ein weib is drawn very gracefully in outline, and is attached, deftly enough, to a very good S of the pen-letter type, though on a separate block; it has three shields of arms in it, one of which is the bearing of Augsburg. This piece is decidedly illuminators' work as to design

Gunther's Margarita Davidica has a border (attached to a very large P) which is much like the Ulm borders in character.

A genealogical tree of the House of Hapsburg prefacing the Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens,and occupying a whole page, is comparable for beauty and elaboration to the S of John Zainer above mentioned; on the whole, for beauty and richness of invention and for neatness of execution, I am inclined to give it the first place among all the decorative pieces of the German printers.

Gunther Zainer's German Bible of c.1474 has a full set of pictured letters, one to every book, of very remarkable merit: the foliated forms, which make the letters and enclose the figures being bold, inventive, and very well drawn. I note that these excellent designs have received much less attention than they deserve.

In almost all but the earliest of Gunther's books a handsome set of initials are used, a good deal like the above-mentioned Ulm initials, but with the foliations blunter, and blended with less of geometrical forms: the pen origin of these is also very marked.

Ludwig Hohenwang, who printed at Augsburg in the seventies, uses a noteworthy set of initials, alluded to above, that would seem to have been drawn by the designer with a twelfth-century MS. before him, though, as a matter of course, the fifteenth century betrays itself in certain details, chiefly in the sharp foliations at the ends of the scrolls, etc. There is a great deal of beautiful design in these letters; but the square border round them, while revealing their origin from illuminators' work, leaves over-large whites in the backgrounds, which call our for the completion that the illuminator's color would have given them.

Bämler and the later printer Sorg do not use so much ornament as Gunther Zainer; their initials are less rich both in line and design than Gunther's, and Sorg's especially have a look of having run down from the earlier ones: in his Seusse, however, there are some beautiful figured initials designed on somewhat the same plan as those of Gunther Zainer's Bible.

Now it may surprise some of our readers, though I should hope not the greatest part of them, to hear that I claim the title of works of art, both for these picture-ornamented books as books, and also for the pictures themselves. Their two main merits are first their decorative and next their story-telling quality; and it seems to me that these two qualities include what is necessary and essential in book-pictures. To be sure the principal aim of these unknown German artists was to give the essence of the story at any cost, and it may be thought that the decorative qualities of their designs were accidental or done unconsciously at any rate. I do not altogether dispute that view; but then the accident is that of the skillful workman whose skill is largely the result of tradition; it has thereby become a habit of the hand to him to work in a decorative manner.

To turn back to the books numbered above as the most important of the school, I should call John Zainer's De Claris Mulieribus, and the Esop, and Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens the most characteristic. Of these my own choice would be the De Claris Mulieribus, partly perhaps because it is a very old friend of mine, and perhaps the first book that gave me a clear insight into the essential qualities of the medieval design of that period. The subject-matter of the book also makes it one of the most interesting, giving it opportunity for setting forth the medieval reverence for the classical period, without any of the loss of romance on the one hand, and epical sincerity and directness on the other, which the flood-tide of renaissance rhetoric presently inflicted on the world. No story-telling could be simpler and more straightforward, and less dependent on secondary help, than that of these curious, and, as people phrase it, rude cuts. And in spite (if you please it) of theirrudeness, they are by no means lacking in definite beauty: the composition is good everywhere, the drapery well designed, the lines rich, which shows of course that the cutting is good. Though there is no ornament save the beautiful initial S and the curious foliated initials above mentioned, the page is beautifully proportioned and stately, when, as in the copy before me, it has escaped the fury of the bookbinder.

The great initial S I claim to be one of the very best printers' ornaments ever made, one which would not disgrace a thirteenth-century MS. Adam and Eve are standing on a finely-designed spray of poppy-like leafage, and behind them rise up boughs of the tree. Eve reaches down an apple to Adam with her right hand, and with her uplifted left takes another from the mouth of the crowned woman's head of the serpent, whose coils, after they have performed the duty of making the S, end in a foliage scroll, whose branches enclose little medallions of the seven deadly sins. All this is done with admirable invention and romantic meaning, and with very great beauty of design and a full sense of decorative necessities.

As to faults in this delightful book, it must be said that it is somewhat marred by the press-work not being so good as it should have been even when printed by the weak presses of the fifteenth century; but this, though a defect, is not, I submit, an essential one.

In the Esop the drawing of the designs is in a way superior to that of the last book: the line leaves nothing to be desired; it is thoroughly decorative, rather heavy, but so firm and strong, and so obviously in submission to the draftsman's hand, that it is capable of even great delicacy as well as richness. The figures both of man and beast are full of expression; the heads clean drawn and expressive also, and in many cases refined and delicate. The cuts, with few exceptions, are not bounded by a border, but amid the great richness of line no lack of one is felt, and the designs fully sustain their decorative position as a part of the noble type of the Ulm and Augsburg printers; this Esop is, to my mind, incomparably the best and most expressive of the many illustrated editions of the Fables printed in the fifteenth century. The designs of the other German and Flemish ones were all copied from it.

Gunther Zainer's Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens is again one of the most amusing of wood-cut books. One may say that the book itself, one of the most popular of the Middle Ages, runs through all the conditions and occupations of men as then existing, from the Pope and Kaiser down to the field laborer, and, with full indulgence in the medieval love of formal antithesis, contrasts the good and the evil side of them. The profuse illustrations to all this abound in excellent pieces of naive characterization; the designs are very well put together, and, for the most part, the figures well drawn, and draperies good and crisp, and the general effect very satisfactory as decoration. The designer in this book, however, has not been always so lucky in his cutter as those of the last two, and some of the pictures have been considerably injured in the cutting. On the other hand the lovely genealogical tree above mentioned crowns this book with abundant honor, and the best of the cuts are so good that it is hardly possible to rank it after the first two. Gunther Zainer's Speculum Humanae Salvationis and his Golden Legend have cuts decidedly ruder than these three boooks; they are simpler also, and less decorative as ornaments to the page, nevertheless they have abundant interest, and most often their essential qualities of design shine through the rudeness, which by no means excludes even grace of silhouette: one and all they are thoroughly expressive of the story they tell. The designs in these two books, by the by, do not seem to have been done by the same hand; but I should think that the designer of those in the Golden Legend drew the subjects that `inhabit' the fine letters of Gunther's GermanBible. Both seem to me to have a kind of illuminator's character in them. The cuts to the story of Simon bring us back to those of the Spiegel des Menschlichen lebens; they are delicate and pretty, and tell the story, half so repulsive, half so touching, of `little Sir Hugh,' very well.

I must not pass by without a further word of Sigismund and Guiscard. I cannot help thinking that the cuts therein are by the same hand that drew some of those in the Esop; at any rate they have the same qualities of design, and are to my mind singularly beautiful and interesting.

Of the other contemporary, or nearly contemporary, printers, Bämler comes first in interest. His book von den 7 Todsünden, etc., has cuts of much interest and invention, not unlike in character to those of Gunther Zainer's Golden Legend. His Buch der Natur has full-page cuts of animals, herbs, and human figures exceedingly quaint, but very well designed for the most part. A half-figure of a bishop `in pontificalibus' is particularly bold and happy. Rupertus a sancto Remigio's History of the crusade and the Cronich von allen Konigen und Kaisern are finely illustrated. His Rosencranz Bruderschaft above mentioned has but two cuts, but they are both of them, the one as a fine decorative work, the other as a deeply felt illustration of devotional sentiment, of the highest merit.

The two really noteworthy works of Sorg (who, as aforesaid, was somewhat a plagiaristic publisher) are, first, the Seusse, which is illustrated with bold and highly decorative cuts full of meaning and dignity, and next, the Council of Constance, which is the first heraldic woodcut work (it has besides the coats of arms, several fine full-page cuts, of which the burning of Huss is one). These armorial cuts, which are full of interest as giving a vast number of curious and strange bearings, are no less so as showing what admirable decoration can be got out of heraldry when it is simply and well drawn.

To Conrad Dinckmut of Ulm, belonging to a somewhat later period than these last-named printers, belongs the glory of opposing by his fine works the coming degradation of book-ornament in Germany. The Seelen-wurzgarten, ornamented with seventeen full-page cuts, is injured by the too free repetition of them; they are, however, very good; the best perhaps being the Nativity, which, for simplicity and beauty, is worthy of the earlier period of the Middle Ages. The Swabian Chronicle has cuts of various degrees of merit, but all interesting and full of life and spirit: a fight in the lists with axes being one of the most remarkable. Das buch der Weisheit (Bidpay's Fables) has larger cuts which certainly show no lack of courage; they are perhaps scarcely so decorative as the average of the cuts of the school, and are somewhat coarsely cut; but their frank epical character makes them worthy of all attention. But perhaps his most remarkable work is his Terence's Eunuchus (in German), ornamented with twenty-eight cuts illustrating the scenes. These all have backgrounds showing (mostly) the streets of a medieval town, which clearly imply theatrical scenery; the figures of the actors are delicately drawn, and the character of the persons and their action is well given and carefully sustained throughout. The text of this book is printed in a large handsome black-letter, imported, as my friend Mr Proctor informs me, from Italy. The book is altogether of singular beauty and character.

The Caoursin (1496), the last book of any account printed at Ulm, has good and spirited cuts of the events described, the best of them being the flight of Turks in the mountains. One is almost tempted to think that these cuts are designed by the author of those of the MainzBreidenbach of 1486, though the cutting is much inferior.

All these books, it must be remembered, though they necessarily (being printed books) belong to the later Middle Ages, and though some of them are rather decidedly late in that epoch, are thoroughly `Gothic' as to their ornament; there is no taint of the Renaissance in them. In this respect the art of book-ornament was lucky. The neo-classical rhetoric which invaded literature before the end of the fourteenth century (for even Chaucer did not quite escape it) was harmless against this branch of art at least for more than another hundred years; so that even Italian book-pictures are Gothic in spirit, for the most part, right up to the beginning of the sixteenth century, long after the New Birth had destroyed the building arts for Italy: while Germany, whose Gothic architecture was necessarily firmer rooted in the soil, did not so much as feel the first shiver of the coming flood till suddenly, and without warning, it was upon her, and the art of the Middle Ages fell dead in a space of about five years, and was succeeded by a singularly stupid and brutal phase of that rhetorical and academical art, which, in all matters of ornament, has held Europe captive ever since.

1 By the by, in Gritsch's Quadragesimale, 1475, this zany is changed into an ordinary citizen by means of an ingenious piecing of the block.

2 Another set of initials founded on twelfth-century work occurs in John Zainer's folio books, and has some likeness to those used by Hohenwang of Augsburg in the Golden Bibel and elsewhere, and perhaps was suggested by these, as they are not very early (c. 1475), but they differ from Hohenwang's in being generally more or less shaded, and also in not being enclosed in a square.

3 The initials of Knoblotzer of Strassburg and Bernard Richel of Basel may be mentioned.

This article was illustrated by prints from the following books:

  • Gunther Zainer's Ingold, das golden Spiel. Augsburg, 1472.
  • John Zainer's Griseldis. Ulm, 1473.
  • John Zainer's Boccaccio, de Claris Mulieribus.
  • John Zainer's Esop.
  • Gunther Zainer's Epistles and Gospels. Augsburg, 1474.
  • Gunther Zainer's Tuberinus, Geschicht von dem Heiligen Kind Symon. Augsburg, c.1475.
  • Conrad Dinckmut, Terence's Eunuchus. Ulm, 1486.

Bibliographica: Papers on Books, their History and Art, 1893.

From : Marxists.org

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