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Origins of European Printmaking Opens in Washington
Austrian (?). Saint Jerome Removing a Thorn from the Lion's Paw, c. 1430. colored woodcut, image: 271 x 193 mm (10 11/16 x 7 5/8). Albertina, Vienna. © Albertina, Vienna.

WASHINGTON, DC.-Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public is the first major international exhibition to be devoted to the earliest images printed on paper in the Western world. On view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, through November 27, 2005, this exhibition of 146 early woodcuts, books, printed textiles, and other related objects examines the role of replicated images in late medieval culture. After Washington, the exhibition will travel to Nuremberg, where it will be on view at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum from December 14, 2005, through March 19, 2006.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, the exhibition draws upon the strength of each museum’s outstanding collection of early prints. Their contributions are joined by a number of important works from other individuals and institutions, including the Historisches Museum Basel; the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Art Institute of Chicago; the British Museum, London; the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Albertina, Vienna.

“Origins of European Printmaking provides a basis for rethinking a remarkable phenomenon in the history of Western culture, the replication of printed images, which actually predates Gutenberg’s replication of printed texts,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We believe the exhibition sets a new standard of scholarship in the field, and we are grateful to the many distinguished museums, libraries, and private lenders who have contributed to this effort.”

Exhibition Support - Air transportation is provided by Lufthansa. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Exhibition - The exhibition centers on the “single-leaf” woodcut, a relief print made to circulate on its own rather than one designed for a specific purpose or location, such as a book illustration. Relief prints were the earliest efficient means of reproducing a complex image in large numbers, and a major objective of this exhibition is to demonstrate the many ways in which individuals made use of this new technology: how they adapted replicated images for particular purposes, inscribed them with prayers, incorporated them into objects of daily use, and turned to them to satisfy both personal and spiritual needs.

Since the majority of early relief prints owe their survival to the practice of pasting woodcuts into books and objects of domestic use, many works in the exhibition are presented in their original contexts. Among these is the Ecce Homo in a Cofferet (cat. 42), one of several early woodcuts adorning the interiors of small coffers, or boxes. There are also several examples of prints exhibited in the manuscripts in which they were inserted by their earliest owners. The most famous of these is the Buxheim Saint Christopher (cat. 35), once considered the earliest dated woodcut in existence.

Printmaking in Western Europe emerged during the first quarter of the 15th century out of the gradual adaptation of existing materials and techniques. Room I of the exhibition, Techniques of Replication, presents various examples of works created by stamping, impressing, molding, and casting, such as lead pilgrim badges, leather bindings, woodblocks, colored woodcuts, and engravings. Among them are actual 15th century woodblocks including The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (cat. 4), shown alongside a hand-colored woodcut printed in the 15th century from this very block.

Only a few dozen woodcuts appear to have survived from the earliest stages of the medium. Room II: Traces of an Early Style brings together several of those first woodcuts, characterized by a flowing linear style descended from late Gothic art. The exhibition contains the most notable examples, including Christ before Herod (cat. 25), one of the largest and most impressive, as well as Saint Dorothy and the Christ Child (cat. 27), and Saint Jerome Removing a Thorn from the Lion’s Paw (cat. 30), both among the first known printed images of these subjects and two of the most admired. The style of such early woodcuts was studied and emulated by artists such as William Morris, founder of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, and the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

While the overwhelming majority of the earliest replicated images portray religious subjects, several unusual examples of secular works are presented in Room III: New Markets. Among them is the late 14th century Legend of Oedipus (cat. 2), a grand and brilliantly colored fabric that may be the earliest known textile block-printed in Europe. Christ Child with a New Year’s Wish (cat. 53), intended as a gift or token of good will, marks the historical introduction of the greeting card. Other examples include Household Goods (cat. 60), meant to instruct the betrothed about their domestic needs; A Human Skeleton (cat. 61), the earliest printed medical illustration of this subject; and Apes Performing on Horseback (cat. 63), in which two acrobats can be rotated to switch roles, the oldest surviving example of a “transformable picture.”

Most of the early woodcuts that survive were kept in monasteries or were privately owned. Room IV: The Uses of Early Woodcuts presents woodcuts of religious subjects in the context of the many ways they were used: as objects of veneration, aides to piety, personal gifts, or makeshift illustrations for devotional texts. Prints and related objects depicting the story of Christ and his sufferings, and images of the Virgin Mary, were intended to encourage the visualization of sacred events and instill piety in the devout.

Among the most extraordinary surviving examples is a woodcut printed on vellum showing the Lamentation over the body of Christ (cat. 39) that was used as a folded private altarpiece by a nun named Apollonia. It was kept in a small pouch she probably embroidered herself and a box to contain these items. On view are several woodcuts of the “Holy Face” believed at the time to record the actual appearance of Christ. There are also a number of unusual instructional images, such as The Hand as the Mirror of Salvation (cat. 92), a mnemonic device intended to help recall the ecclesiastical scheme of repentance.

Room V: The Saints presents images of those who were considered intercessors with God on behalf of the faithful. Many of these woodcuts have inscriptions imploring the aid of a saint, additions that reflect the intimate relationship that could develop between images and their beholders. Among the many saints portrayed are Saint Margaret (cat. 97), an elegant and finely crafted metal cut of the patron of childbirth; Saint Onuphrius (cat. 102), whose image is conflated with the medieval “wild man,” venerated as an ideal of abstinence; and Saint Christopher Bearing the Christ Child (cat. 14a), a subject invoked by travelers to this day for their protection.

Curators, Catalogue, and Related Activities - Peter Parshall, curator of old master prints at the National Gallery, Washington, and Rainer Schoch, head of the graphic arts collection, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, are co-curators of the exhibition and the editors of the exhibition catalogue, Origins of European Printmaking. The catalogue, featuring contributions by Richard S. Field, Peter Schmidt, and David S. Areford, is a comprehensive history of late medieval woodcuts and explores the topic in a broad social and economic context. Published by the National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, the hardcover catalogue will be available in September for $65 and can be ordered by calling (800) 697-9350, (202) 842-6002, or by emailing mailorder@

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