A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 9

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[ 81 ]

CHAPTER IX

HANS HOLBEIN AND HANS LÜTZELBURGER

Hans Holbein, who first saw the light at Augsburg in the year 1497, was the greatest artist ever born in Germany, and as he passed half of his artistic life in England we may claim some little share in the glory of his undisputed eminence.

The son of a worthy painter of sacred pictures for the Church, he was brought up amidst all the paraphernalia of the studio, and at a very early age began to design title-pages, initial letters, and ornaments for numerous important books published by Johann Froben, Valentine Curio, and other printers of Basel, and Christoph Froschover, of Zürich. Some of these folio title-pages, most of which are of an architectural character, are veritable works of art, and are greatly treasured at the present day. Next we find him making illustrations for the New Testament, some of which were engraved on wood and some on metal, probably by Dienecker or Lützelburger, though of this we have no direct evidence.

But Holbein's greatest fame, as a designer of book-illustrations, is derived from his well-known series of the 'Dance of Death,' which was first given to the world in the year 1538, though from some proofs still in existence they are known to have been engraved before the artist's first visit to London in 1527. It is believed that the original forty-one drawings on wood were all cut by Hans Lützelburger, who has been very properly called the 'True Prince of Wood-Engravers,' for, in the opinion of our foremost critics, these 'Dance of Death' cuts are the masterpieces of the art at that period, excelling even the work of Jerome Andre of Nürnberg on Dürer's 'Triumphal Arch.' [ 82 ]

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH THE KING

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH
THE KING

Seventeen other designs were added to the 'Dance of Death' afterwards, making the complete series fifty-eight. The original blocks are lost; they have been copied on the Continent many times, and were reproduced in England in perfect facsimile and in the very best manner under the superintending care of Francis Douce, a celebrated antiquary, by John and Mary Byfield and George Bonner, all excellent engravers. Accompanied by a learned dissertation by Mr. Douce, the work [ 83 ] was published by William Pickering[1] in the year 1833. It is from electrotypes of these blocks that we are enabled to present to our readers the designs of 'The King,' 'The Queen,' 'The Astrologer,' and 'The Pedlar,' four of the best of the series.

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH THE QUEEN

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH
THE QUEEN

Wall-pictures of 'The Dance of Death,' with but little artistic merit, existed at a much earlier period, and some of them may still be traced in the cloisters of old cathedrals. The subject was a great favourite with both priest and people in the Middle Ages; it appealed to the feelings of rich and poor, old and young, and Holbein's 'fearful' pictures, as soon as they appeared, met with immense popularity, which, to this day, has never ceased. [ 84 ]

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH THE ASTROLOGER

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH
THE ASTROLOGER

Almost every class is represented in them—the King at his well-spread board is served by his fellow King, who fills his bowl; the Queen, walking with her ladies, is led into an open grave; in a landscape, in which we see a flock of sheep, Death appears to an aged Bishop; here we see Death running away with the Abbot's mitre and crozier; there he visits the Physician and the Astrologer. In the church is a Preacher who holds the people in awe, behind him is a Preacher more dread still; the Miser with his bags, the Merchant with his bales, are alike surprised by Death; the Knight's armour is defenceless, the Pedlar with his basket cannot escape, the Waggoner with [ 85 ] his wine-cart is overthrown. All are represented in their turn—the Duchess in her bed, the poor woman in her hovel, the child who is ruthlessly taken from his mother. We can imagine the sensation which such a work would create among a very impressionable people at that season of religious ferment, the greatest the world has ever known. Thirteen editions from the original blocks are known to have been printed between the years 1538 and 1563.

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH THE PEDLAR

HOLBEIN'S DANCE OF DEATH
THE PEDLAR

About the same time another series of wood-engravings appeared, consisting of eighty-six designs by Holbein, drawn on wood larger than the 'Dance of Death' blocks and just as well engraved, probably by Lützelburger; these were 'Scenes from Old Testament History,' generally known as 'Holbein's Bible Cuts'; they were issued separately with descriptions in verse and were also used to illustrate Bibles. [ 86 ]

THE HAPPINESS OF THE GODLY.—HOLBEIN'S BIBLE CUTS Engraved by Lützelburger

THE HAPPINESS OF THE GODLY.—HOLBEIN'S BIBLE CUTS
Engraved by Lützelburger

This series was also reproduced by the same artists who cut the 'Dance of Death,' under the superintendence of Mr. Douce; and it is from electrotypes of these blocks that we are enabled to give our two Bible illustrations, 'The Happiness of the Godly' (Psalm i.), and 'Joab's Artifice' (2 Samuel xiv. 4). They copy the original prints in exact facsimile, and, looking at them, one cannot but wonder at the high state of perfection to which the art of wood-engraving had attained nearly four hundred years ago. At that time, Germany stood alone in its excellence; France, and even Italy, were far behind her; and England and Spain were nowhere. We ought to add that both the 'Dance of Death' and the 'Bible Cuts' were [ 87 ] issued, with text, by the brothers Trechsel, the celebrated publishers of Lyons, in 1538, when Holbein must have been in England.

A wonderful alphabet, with 'Dance of Death' figures, evidently designed by Holbein, has Hanns Lützelburger (Formschnider) genant Franck printed at the foot of the page. These letters were probably engraved on metal. A 'Peasant's Dance' and 'Children's Sports,' designed as headings of chapters by the same artist, are well known, as they have been frequently reproduced.

JOAB'S ARTIFICE.—HOLBEIN'S BIBLE CUTS Engraved by Lützelburger

JOAB'S ARTIFICE.—HOLBEIN'S BIBLE CUTS
Engraved by Lützelburger

In the works of 'The Little Masters' who succeeded Dürer and Holbein we are not much concerned. Albrecht Altdorfer (d. 1538) was a designer as well as an engraver on wood. Hans Beham (d. 1550?) is best known by his [ 88 ] twentysix designs from the Apocalypse which Mr. Linton praises as of 'supremest excellence.' He says, moreover, that they were probably engraved on metal (perhaps copper), by Beham himself, as well as his 81 little Bible cuts which were used to illustrate the first English Bible. He also designed and perhaps engraved several large cuts, one of which, 'The Fountain of Youth,' is four feet long; another is 'The Dance of the Daughter of Herodias,' reproduced by Dr. Lippmann. Hans Brosamer (d. 1552) designed and engraved pictures for books. Heinrich Aldegrever (d. 1558) is well known for his portraits of Luther, Melanchthon, and the notorious John of Leyden. Virgil Solis (d. 1562) was a prolific book-illustrator; he designed a series of 216 Bible pictures, all of small size, as well as 178 cuts for Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' and 194 for Æsop's Fables; he also designed and probably engraved much ornament, especially for title-pages of books, some of which was very good. Jost Amman (d. 1591) is celebrated for his book of 'All Ranks, Arts, and Trades,' with one hundred and thirty-two figures. (See page 128).

The religious books printed in Germany at the end of the sixteenth century were altogether inferior as regards their illustrations, though a few are fairly designed and executed. Ornamental borders, especially on title pages, were usual, and those designed by Lucas Cranach are of considerable merit. Many of the German printers' marks or devices, which are very well engraved, were the work of some of the best artists of the times.

These were but expiring efforts, and by the end of the century, owing to continual warfare and internal disturbances, the art of wood-engraving in Germany was almost forgotten.


  1. It is now issued by George Bell & Sons, who also publish Holbein's Bible Pictures.