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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Illustrating the Nuremberg Chronicle

The Nuremberg Chronicle was an encyclopedic history of the world and Christianity that spanned seven ages of man. The seven ages begin with creation, then ages two through five detail the events leading to the birth of Christ. The sixth age is the largest portion of the book and covers major world events up to its publication before ending with the seventh age, end times and Judgment Day.

The pages shown here are pulled from the book Liber Chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel. More commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, it was first published in Latin in 1493 with a German edition appearing soon after.

Today the Chronicle is regarded as one of the earliest European books to successfully incorporate text from movable type and printed images. Altogether the Chronicle contains 1,809 illustrations printed from 645 different woodblocks. It was an undertaking of monumental proportions. A surviving bookseller’s advertisement bound into Schedel’s personal copy of the book promises:

“...so great a delight in reading it that you will think that you are not reading a series of stories, but looking at them with your own eyes. For you will see not only portraits of emperors, popes, philosophers, poets and other famous men, each shown in the proper dress of his time, but also views of the most famous cities and places throughout Europe, as each one rose, prospered, and continued.”

The marriage of text and image afforded readers an opportunity to envision distant lands long before photographs and commercial flights.

The illustrations are relief prints created from carved woodblocks. The task of designing these blocks was assigned to the largest workshop in the city of Nuremberg, that of Michael Wolgemut. He was one of the leading artists of German woodcuts and is well-known today as the teacher of the artist Albrecht Durer.

Durer was an apprentice in Wolgemut’s workshop in the years leading to the publication of the Chronicle from 1486 until roughly 1490. Though none of the blocks in the Chronicle are signed, it is likely that Durer was involved in the creation of some of the Chronicle’s woodblocks. While he is best known for his engravings, Durer’s use of woodblocks and biblical themes continued outside of his apprenticeship. WAM’s 1497 impression of Durer’s Samson Rending the Lion (Fig. 1) depicts a biblical tale set against a pastoral backdrop. It includes a distant cityscape reminiscent of those found in the Chronicle.

Fig. 1. Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528), Samson Rending the Lion,
 1497, woodcut on white laid paper. Museum Purchase, 1935.152

WAM’s permanent collection includes three illustrated pages from the Chronicle. Two depict creation from the first age of man and one depicts a line of Italian kings from the sixth age. WAM’s impression of God the Father Enthroned is especially notable given it is a hand colored full-page illustration (Fig. 2). It is also one of the first images in the Chronicle. Woodblock prints were typically only printed in black ink, but wealthier customers would often commission an artist to add color.

Fig. 2. Michael Wolgemut (German, 1434–1519), Wilhelm
Pleydenwurff (German, 15th century), 
God the Father
Enthroned, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (fol. 1),
woodcut on cream laid paper with hand coloring,
Theodore T. and Mary G. Ellis Fund, 2002.522

Until the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press around 1440, books in Europe were copied out by hand and manuscript culture had not been forgotten by the 1490s. Hand coloring harkens back to the tradition of illuminated manuscripts when an artist outside the print shop, enhanced printed images using watercolor or an aqueous-based paint. The two remaining pages are fine examples of the marriage of imagery and text that brought the book to life. The image of God creating Eve from Adam’s flesh vividly interprets the biblical text. (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3. Workshop of Michael Wolgemut (German, 1434–
1519), T
he Creation of Eve, from the Nuremberg Chronicle
(fol. 6)
, 1493, woodcut on cream laid paper.
Harriet B. Bancroft Fund,1980.36

Moreover, WAM’s page depicting a royal bloodline epitomizes what makes the Chronicle so unique. (Fig. 4) Instead of merely formatting the movable type at the top of the page and positioning a woodblock beneath as was typical, here the text is sandwiched vertically between the two long columns of woodblocks, which themselves contain carved text.

Fig. 4. Workshop of Michael Wolgemut, Michael Wolgemut
(German, 1434–1519), 
Folio 52 from Nuremberg Chronicle,
1493, woodcut on cream laid paper. Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs
Collection: 1926.1642

As such, the content and illustrations are closely interwoven. Breaks in the borders on the woodblock column at left and in the central vine demonstrate that this was a composite image made from several smaller woodblocks that had been fitted together, making the layout of the page especially challenging to assemble and print.

—By Gabrielle Belisle, Fellow for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
    July 7, 2020

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