At the time of the introduction of the moveable type printing press, woodcuts were the primary representation of mass produced religious communication. The first book using moveable type was printed in the 1450’s and is attributed to Johannes Gutenberg. And even then, since most people could not read much less understand Latin, visual images formed the basis for education. Literally carved into a wooden block in relief, and amazingly in reverse, these blocks could be used as many as five thousand times until they eventually lost their definition. These woodcuts became treasured religious relics and were often removed from the Bibles. Sometimes they were even hand colored, and often attached and concealed on walls in their homes. They were secretly carried even though possession of such images incurred severe penalties, including death.
History tells us that these images were not always well received. The early 1500’s experienced a large destruction of all forms of religious images from woodcuts to even life size three dimensional images. For a period of time even music was banned in many churches and not restored until late 1500’s. Today, bible woodcuts remain the most common visual survivor of these times. The assault on religious images was also many times an assault on the Catholic Church itself. Destruction of religious images was viewed as a way to escape the power of the church and the powerful Pope.
The most notable artist of these times was a young man who only lived 45
years from roughly 1498-1543, but made quite an impact on the world of
religious art. After creating altar pieces like his famous father had
throughout Switzerland, he was eventually brought to England.
Unfortunately, many of his talents were relegated to being the portrait
painter for the infamous Henry VIII but he is also known for the amazing
woodcut featured on our website home page. What is fascinating is that
this image, thought to have taken over one year to produce, was used as
the title page to the first Great Bible. The Great Bible was the first
Bible in English, translated by Coverdale and authorized to be placed in
churches. Interestingly, with only two exceptions, the words spoken in
the cut remain in Latin including the cries from the townspeople “God
save the King”! This woodcut was so expensive that a future required
alteration created quite a controversy. The image prominently displays
Henry VIII but he is flanked on both sides by the full image of his two
closest associates Cranmer and Cromwell including their crests.
Unfortunately, Cromwell’s involvement in Henry's next marriage had
displeased the King and he was beheaded in 1540, only one year after
this woodcut was first used. Rather than significantly alter this
amazing woodcut, subsequent editions removed only Cromwell’s crest yet
his full image remained. The flawless November 1541 edition found in the
Payette Bible Collection shows a small blank dime sized circle over
what was formerly Cromwell’s crest.
The introduction of the Geneva Bible in 1560 saw a transition from
woodcuts of images and biblical scenes to a focus on depictions of
temples and other religious items as well as an extensive use of maps.
The woodcut returned with the graphic images depicted in the martyrdoms
in Foxes Book of Martyrs 1563-1644. The Church of England’s introduction
of the Bishops Bible in 1568 featured lavish woodcuts making it the
most expensive Bible ever produced. Eventually woodcuts scenes
disappeared except when used as ornamental initials and borders in the
famous King James Bible first issued in 1611.