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The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe.

The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe

Peter Parshall (ed.)

Yale University Press 352pp 55 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0300121636

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Why did the image makers become the image breakers? This was the central rhetorical question my old university tutor used to pose about the upheaval in cultural and religious authority we call the Reformation. In recent years historians have honed in on the importance of religious imagery in being its midwife in the years before Luther's 1517 catalyst--how the medium became not just the message but could also radically accelerate and subvert it.

The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe splendidly showcases the latest work in this area by the mainly German and American scholars who attended a National Gallery symposium in Washington D.C. Their essays and vivid illustrations underline how one of the 15th-century's 'new media'--the woodcut--was crucial to that process. A cross-current of religious fervour and devotions can be tracked from pulpit to print and back again with an explosion in disseminating images often derived from higher art but given intimate and crudely powerful expression through woodcuts, often on single sheets of paper.

These essays cover both secular as well as religious woodcuts but it's the latter's story which arrests. A 'potency of cheap music' could come from multi-purpose images on paper that served variously as charms, talismans, portable altars, aide-memoires to personal prayer, pilgrimage souvenirs and memento mori. It was a cauldron of ideas hatched from new cults and preaching, above all concerning the saints and the events of Christ's passion.

This punchy dissemination of iconography via woodcut rapidly intensified those ideas a thousand-fold to a range of lay audiences, especially in and around Germany, the centre of print innovation, with a sociological input akin to the 21st century's creation of online and web communities.

Sharp and demotic, with texts, prayers and indulgences that promised time off in purgatory as well as the visual power of often luridly hand-coloured woodcuts, it is not too fanciful to see their impact as a 15th-century version of Twitter. One example is that of the 'Veronica', the legendary image of Christ's face on his way to the Crucifixion miraculously imprinted on a bystander's handkerchief, sparking off a 1493 order for 50,000 parchment copies from a German printer. In the Gothic North's hungry devotion to the Passion, the woodcut image was the next best route to being 'clad in Christ's skin' as one 15th-century English lyric put it.

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Prejudice could be transmitted as potently as piety via the woodcut. This book contains chilling examples of how stories of alleged Jewish ritual murders--such as that of Simon of Trent in 1475--could be embedded in ugly antisemitic images and texts of which Goebbels would have approved.

The Germany that drove the 15th-century holy trinity of technological innovations--woodcuts, engravings and, finally, movable type--was also to be the crucible of a Reformation which ultimately and ironically privileged the sacred word over the sacred image. This book offers snapshots as to why. No one interested in that process should miss it.

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Author:Marsden, Gordon
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Words:506
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