W is for Woodcut

Woodcut printing is a technique that pre-dates the printed book; used for printing playing cards and religious prints, for example, as well as for block books. To create a woodcut image, the artist either drew directly onto a wooden block, or onto paper which was then pasted to the block. This image would then be carved in relief – so that the area to be inked stood out, whilst the white spaces in the finished image were carved into the block.

Whilst the very earliest of books were largely printed without any illustration or decoration – perhaps leaving spaces on the printed page to allow for these to be added by hand – printers quickly realised that woodcut printing offered a simple means to add decorative features and illustrations to texts. Crucially, the fact that woodcut printing was, like movable type, a relief technique, meant that images and text could be set and printed together, on the same sheet of paper. By contrast, intaglio printing techniques – which involve an image being incised into a surface – required a different kind of press (a rolling press) in order to produce an image. As a result, if illustrations produced using intaglio techniques were to accompany text on the same page, the sheet would have to be printed twice – once for text and once for image. This was a timely and a costly process.

Woodcuts, then, were the preferred method of producing images for early printed books. Earlier in the series we introduced the most highly-illustrated book of the 15th century – the Nuremberg Chronicles – with its 1809 woodcut images, produced using 645 woodblocks. Since woodblocks were durable, it was not uncommon to reuse images – sometimes even in a different work entirely.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is an excellent example of the close marriage of text and image that woodcut printing enabled.

Whilst the earliest woodcut images in books were generally fairly simple, outline images, designed to allow for colouring by hand, by the end of the 15th century the art of woodcut illustration in books had advanced such that the most sophisticated productions displayed considerable artistry, including the use of chiaroscuro effects to produce tones. Still, in terms of the quality of the finished image, woodcut was not able to compete with intaglio methods of printing. It was for this reason that copperplate printing eventually overtook woodcut as the preferred method of illustrating books, by around the middle of the 16th century. Because of the difficulties in printing text alongside copperplate images, it became common for illustrations to take up entire pages, which were then inserted in place before binding. As a result, books generally contained fewer illustrations and decorations than they had during the golden age of the woodcut.

The use of woodcut printing was just one of the techniques revived by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. The 87 wood-cut illustrations in this, the Kelscott Chaucer, are by William Harcourt Hooper, after drawings by Edward Burne-Jones.

References and further reading:

Hind, Arthur Mayger, An introduction to a history of woodcut, with a detailed survey of work done in the 15th century, 1935

MacLean, Robert, Book illustration: the woodcut2012

Suarez, Michael F. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

N is for Nuremberg Chronicle

The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum in Latin or Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten in German) is one of the most important books in the history of printing.

Produced on commission from Nuremberg merchants Sebald Schreyer (1446-1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446-1503) in 1493, the 600 page text is attributed to Nuremberg doctor and humanist Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). Drawing heavily from earlier, medieval and Renaissance sources, Schedel purports to tell the history of the Christian world from its creation to the time of writing. The text incorporates its fair share of myth and fable – with geographical and historical information on European counties and towns written alongside tales of epidemics, monsters and comets.

What makes this work remarkable however, is not so much the text itself, but rather the beauty and skill of the images that accompany it – bringing to life the biblical and historical events, major cities and important figures from myth and history within the text. Indeed, the Nuremberg Chronicle is the most lavishly illustrated book of the 15th century. In total, the work boasts 1809 images, produced using 645 woodblocks, many of which were used more than once. A mere 72 blocks were used for the 596 portraits of emperors, popes and other celebrities, for example – so each was used to represent 8 or 9 different people, changing only the caption.

As you can see from the above image, the woodcut images were incorporated closely within the letterpress text. A feat of considerable technical skill on the part of those involved in its production, this resulted in a particularly elegant and satisfying mise-en-page. To enable this, the work was first carefully planned in manuscript drafts (called ‘exemplars’) before printing. Remarkably, complete exemplars of both the Latin and the German edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle survive, and indicate that the images were sketched first, with the text inscribed to fit within the remaining space.

The “Dance of Death”
Double-page map.

The woodcuts and exemplars for the Nuremberg Chronicle were produced by Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519) and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c.1460-1494), and the work was printed and published by Anton Koberger (1445-1513) – the largest printer and publisher in Germany at the time. Koberger printed the Latin version on the 12th July 1493, with a German translation following shortly after, on 23rd December 1493. The University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) is fortunate enough to hold three copies of the 1493 Latin edition, and one of the German translation. A final copy of the Chronicle in SC&A is a pirated edition, printed by Johann Schönsperger (d. 1520) in Augsberg in 1500.

That SC&A holds so many copies of such an early printed book is perhaps rendered a little less surprising when we learn that no other 15th century book survives in as many copies as the Nuremberg Chronicle, undoubtedly an indication of its popularity at the time, as well as its enduring interest to collectors and researchers alike. Indeed, the SC&A copies were given to us by some of the most important donors in the history of the library – Charles Sydney Jones, Henry Tate, Thomas Glazebrook Rylands and Robert George Morton, and we were recently very excited to have all five SC&A copies of this important work on display in the reading room at one time, having beeen ordered up by Dr. Nina Adamova, as part of her research into marginalia in copies of the Chronicle. 

Large flourished initial in gold and colours on folio 1 of the copy of the Chronicle donated to SC&A by Robert George Morton in 1969.

References and further reading:

Wilson, Adrian. The making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. (1976)

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, ed. Worlds of learning: the library and world chronicle of the Nuremberg physician Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). (2015)

Advent and After: 23. Nuremberg Chronicle

Nuremberg Chronicle: colophon

Nuremberg Chronicle: colophon

Colophon: The final sentence reads: ”Completed on the 23rd day of the month of December, after the birth of Christ our Saviour, 1493 years”.

Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum in the Latin edition or Das Buch der Chroniken und Geschichten in the German translation is a monumental folio illustrated with more woodcuts than had ever appeared in a printed book.

Nuremberg Chronicle: building Noah's Ark

Nuremberg Chronicle: building Noah's Ark


The printer of the Chronicle, Anton Koberger, maintained his printing house, with its twenty-four presses, in the  Aegidienplatz, one of the oldest squares in Nuremberg.

The Chronicle was published in Latin on June 12, 1493. It was then translated into German by Georg Alt (c. 1450-1510), the city treasurer of Nuremberg and the German edition was published on December 23, 1493.

The copy of Das Buch der Chroniken und Geschichten held in Special Collections and Archives is in the original blind-stamped binding, possibly from the publisher’s bindery, it has the bookplate of Josiah Spode and was presented to the University Library by Henry Tate in 1894. Happy Birthday, Nuremberg Chronicle!