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Experimental Woodcuts as Strategies of Communication ○ Catarina Zimmermann-Homeyer


Fig. 1: Woodcut, Book 1 (Suicide of Ajax). In Boethius. Consolatio Philosophiae. Paris: Antoine Vérard, 1494, Fol. a1 r (ISTC ib00814000).

Source: Morgan Library & Museum, purchased in 1949; PML 41002. Image courtesy of John T. McQuillen. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York.


Fig. 2: Illumination, Book 1. In Boethius. Consolatio Philosophiae. Paris: Antoine Vérard, 1494, Fol. a1 r (ISTC ib00814000).

Source: Paris, Petit Palais (FRBNF30118341).


Fig. 3: Woodcut, Book 1, Pr. I. In Boethius. Consolatio Philosophiae. Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger, 1501, Fol. III v.

Source: Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res /2 34.


Fig. 4: Woodcut, Frontispice. In Boethius. De Consolatio Philosophiae. Strasbourg: Johann Schott, 31. VIII. 1500. 4° (ISTC ib00815000).

Source: HAB Wolfenbüttel: A: 18.14 Eth.


Fig. 5: Book illumination, Book 1, Pr. I. In Boethius. Consolatio Philosophiae. Bruges: Colard Mansion 1477, Fol. [1r] (ISTC ib00813900).

Source: Cambridge University Library, Inc. I.F.7.1 (3464)


Fig. 6: Woodcut, Typus Grammaticae. In Gregor Reisch. Margarita Philosophica. Freiburg i.Br.: Schott 1503, [unpag. (Fol. 3 r)].

Source: Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res/4 Ph.u. 114.


Fig. 7: Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder, Tower of Grammar. In Valentin Boltz. Turm der Grammatik. Zurich: Eustachius Froschauer, 1548. (Geisberg, Woodcut IV, Nr. 1430).

Source: Wikipedia


Fig. 8: Woodcut, Theatrum. In Terence. Comoediae. Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1496, Fol. a1 r. (ISTC it00094000).

Source: Darmstadt University Library, Inc. IV 77.


Fig. 9: Woodcut, Theatrum. In Terence. Comoediae. Lyon: Trechsel, 1493, Fol. a4 v (ISTC it00091000).

Source: Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 4 Inc.c.a. 1040 m


Fig. 10: Woodcut, Argumentum image Eunuchus. In Terence. Comoediae. Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1496, Fol. XXVIII v (ISTC it00094000).

Source: Darmstadt University Library, Inc. IV 77.


Fig. 11: Woodcut, Scene image Eunuchus, V. In Terence. Comoediae. Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1496, Fol. LVII r (ISTC it00094000).

Source: Darmstadt University Library, Inc. IV 77.


Fig. 12: Woodcut, Scene image Eunuchus, V. In Terence. Comoediae. Lyon: Trechsel, 1493, Fol. o2 r (ISTC it00091000).

Source: Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 4 Inc.c.a. 1040 m


Fig. 13: Woodcut, De Verbo. In Matthias Ringmann. Grammatica Figurata. St. Dié, Walter Lud 1509, Fol. 19 r.

Source: Franz Wieser, Die Grammatica figurata des Mathias Ringmann (Philesius Vogesigena) in Faksimiledruck, Strasbourg 1905.


Fig. 14: Woodcut Applicatio octava. In Murner. Logica Memorativa. Chartiludium logice sive totius dialectice memoria. Strasbourg: Grüninger 1509 (VD16 J 661), Fol. C 7 r.

Source: Munich Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Rar. 1455.

As early as 1500, the illustration of literary works confronted the editors with the problem of expedience: the expensive woodcuts were intended to support the reading, to illustrate the contents appropriately and to complement them ideally. Especially in the first decades after the invention of letterpress printing, one can observe experiments with the medium woodcut in terms of design and technology, to achieve all these combined purposes.
The Consolatio Philosophiae by the late antique writer Boethius, which was widely read in the Middle Ages in Latin and vernacular translations, provided ample opportunities for splendid illuminations, from which developed a stable canon of motifs for illustrations (Zimmermann-Homeyer 191f.). As printing technology became available, woodcuts illustrating the standard imagery of the story were developed. In early French and Flemish printed books, the pictures were delicately illuminated, occasionally even a (unsuitable) woodcut was painted over. (Fig. 1 & 2). Similarly, when a German-language edition was published in Strasbourg in 1500 by Johannes Schott, it opened with a woodcut (Fig. 4). Shortly afterwards, the Strasbourg publisher Grüninger printed a continuously illustrated edition together with the scholar Sebastian Brant, equally with a woodcut at its beginning.
The Strasbourg woodcuts (Fig. 3 & 4) continue an old convention of representation (Fig. 5), but, Grüninger and Brant had the ambition to add pictures to most of the texts of the Consolatio. Here, the traditional iconography was limited, and they had to create new pictorial content. To this purpose they used the technique of combinable woodcuts, which offered a great variety of motifs. Such images additionally supported the reader’s orientation within the book, assuming a thorough knowledge of the content (Zimmermann-Homeyer 193–201).
The printers Schott and Grüninger also appeared as competitors on another work of philosophy: Barely a year after the first publication of Gregor Reisch’s encyclopaedic work Margarita Philosophica by Schott in Freiburg, Grüninger reprinted it and copied its numerous woodcuts, some of which were highly complex in content (Büttner, Wirth 294). The demands on the reader or student were already evident in the woodcut “Typus Grammatic[a]e” (Fig. 6), which opens the first of the twelve books. The picture memorably shows the chronological sequence of the educational content during the study of the Septem Artes Liberales: as the student’s physical passage through the “Tower of Knowledge”, a fictious tower building. The architecture here becomes a concrete space of knowledge (Wissensraum) with an additional sensual, nourishing component highlighted by the title Triclinium Philosophiae which associates a banquet for the mind.  
At the same time the woodcut is a scheme of the organisation for the entire book: Like the boy in the “Tower of Knowledge”, the reader also moves through the twelve books of the Margarita Philosophica, which concept is illustrated through the architectural structure of the tower. The grammarians in the massive base, together with the ancient authorities at the windows of the hexagonal tower (from left to right), depict the seven liberal arts (Books I–VII). Aristotle and Seneca in the round tower are representatives of the philosophy of nature and morals (VIII–XII). Petrus Lombardus as a representative of theology thus stands for the target science of philosophical education (Büttner 276). The individual outward appearance of the ancient authorities underlines the memorative function for the viewer.
A similar scheme may be found in the Tower of Grammar from 1548, which amongst others links grammatical content with social hierarchies (Fig. 7; Siegel 114–8).
The use of a tower architecture as an allegory was quite popular, but sometimes it poses a riddle to research: the title page of Grüninger’s 1496 edition of the Terence’s Comedies shows a tower as location of the spectator stands (Fig. 8). Grüninger’s round tower with circumferential balconies combines visual elements of the theatre reconstructions in manuscripts of the 15th century and the 1493 Terence edition from Lyon (Johann Trechsel), which are based on literary sources on antique theatre (Fig. 9). At the same time, the spatial arrangement of spectators and actors does not seem to depict a credible performance situation. Latest interpretative approaches point in a morally didactic direction.
The woodblock prints for each of the six comedies, on the other hand, clearly form a sophisticated memorative system of explanatory text (declaratio), an argumentum and a panorama-like frontispiece (figura) for each comedy (Fig. 10). In these frontispieces the information content is derived from characteristically designed figures (imagines), which are assigned to specific places (loci) in the picture. The plot connections between the appearing persons are illustrated by visual references and connecting lines (Zimmermann-Homeyer 95–178). “Argumentum pictures” of this kind would be used for many decades as a memorative support in books of different contents (Ibid. 143, 287–8).
Part of this mnemonic system are also the combined woodcuts at the beginning of each scene showing the respective protagonists (Fig. 11). Although they are based on the stage scenes imitating antiquity of the Lyon edition (Trechsel 1493; Fig. 12), their purpose here is to resemble the corresponding figure from the argumentum picture:
“Such practice logically results from the commemorative overall concept that’s supposed to ensure a better understanding of the storyline; considering the many characters and repeating names across the six comedies, it also appears quite helpful.” (Zimmermann-Homeyer 135; transl. by editor)
Innovative and effective were also educational card games, which came up in this time. They enabled a playful learning of abstract Artes contents. The Grammatica Figurata of Matthias Ringmann (Fig. 13) or the Logica Memorativa of Thomas Murner (Fig. 14) (both 1509) combined learning content with the students’ desire for leisure time activities in complex playing card motifs – a forerunner of today’s “gamification”. In this case, however, the relationship between text and image is to be understood the other way round: it is not the image that explains the text, but the accompanying book that enables the reader to understand the complex system of symbols in the playing card image. In the time of early book printing the illustrators transferred rhetorical strategies of the Ars memorativa to the pictures and, in combination with the respective texts, transformed them into new strategies of communication.


Büttner, Frank. “Die Illustrationen der Margarita Philosophica des Gregor Reisch. Zur Typologie der Illustration in gedruckten Werken der Frühen Neuzeit.” In Frank Büttner, Markus Friedrich, and Helmut Zedelmaier (eds). Sammeln, Ordnen, Veranschaulichen – Zur Wissenskompiliatorik in der Frühen Neuzeit. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2003. pp. 269–299. 

Courcelle, Pierre. La Consolation de Philosophie dans la Tradition Littéraire: Antécédents et Postérité de Boèce. Paris: Études Augustiennes, 1967. 

Geisberg, Max. The German Single-Leaf Woodcut: 1500–1550, Vol. IV. New York, NY: Hacker, 1974.

Siegel, Steffen. Tabula. Figuren der Ordnung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2009.

Wirth, Karl-August. “Von mittelalterlichen Bildern und Lehrfiguren im Dienste der Schule und des Unterrichts.” In Bernd Möller, Hans Patzke, and Karl Stackmann (eds). Studien zum städtischen Bildungswesen des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983. pp. 256–370.

Zimmermann-Homeyer, Catarina. Illustrierte Frühdrucke lateinischer Klassiker. Innovative Illustrationskonzepte aus der Straßburger Offizin Johannes Grüningers und ihre Wirkung. (Wolfenbütteler Abhandlungen zur Renaissanceforschung 36). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2018. 

Catarina Zimmermann-Homeyer studied Art History in Münster, Berlin and Bonn with a focus on illustrations in early letterpress printing. Her doctoral thesis Illustrierte Frühdrucke lateinischer Klassiker um 1500 was published in 2018 by the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel where she is associated with the research group Historische Bildkulturen. She currently focuses her research on communication strategies in illustrated publications by southern German humanists in the pre-Reformation period.

woodcuts; early book printing; Strasbourg; ars memorativa; Boethius; Reisch

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