Images on the Move: The Virgin, the Kalendar of Shepherds, and the Transmission of Woodcuts in Tudor England

By Davis, David | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Images on the Move: The Virgin, the Kalendar of Shepherds, and the Transmission of Woodcuts in Tudor England


Davis, David, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


Sixteenth-century English printing depended heavily upon the recycling and transmitting of woodcuts and other illustrations, a characteristic of the trade which has often been either overlooked or considered an unfortunate and detrimental result of limited resources. (1) More important, this movement of images across the period shaped and defined the printed iconography as well as the general milieu of printing in England. This is particularly apparent in the period of the Reformation, when certain religious images were dubbed idolatrous while other similar pictures continued to be printed. This study examines the nature of these transmissions over the century, focusing upon images of the Virgin Mary and the collection of woodcuts in the many editions of the Kalendar of Shepherds as examples of how the meanings of the images could be augmented and reshaped to fit into new doctrinal and confessional contexts. (2)

The image of the Virgin provides unique insight into image transmission, for, as one historian remarks, during the Reformation "images of Mary ... became prime symbols of what needed to be destroyed." (3) Though this may have been true of statues and church icons, the survival of pre-Reformation printed images and the transmission of these images into Protestant books require a more nuanced explanation in order to understand the proliferation of such imagery in Reformation England. Understanding how the meanings of images could be altered and recontextualized offers indicators as to what might have been considered acceptable visual depictions within the fluctuating world of the Reformation. (4)

With few skilled artisans and limited economic capital, English stationers expected woodcuts and engravings to withstand several different printings. In many ways, the movement of images shaped the nature of the English trade and distinguished it from most European printing houses, which were more capable of continually manufacturing new images. But this must be understood within the full historical context. While the recycling of images was more prolific in England, it did not totally define English printing. John King explains, "English Protestants not only preserved books that contained old-fashioned devotional images, but they engaged in the illustration of books on the model of German Lutheran and other Northern European publications." (5) Also, while stationers often printed a single woodcut in several books, this was never done haphazardly or without specific intent. Later in the century, the image could be transferred into another stationer's stock to be printed in a variety of texts, seemingly without any great detriment to the image's market value or meaning. Through transmission and recycling, printers employed the illustrations more economically and in so doing refashioned the intended message of what was seen.

Ruth Luborsky warns that we should not believe that in these transmissions the images lost all of their meaning. While the illustrative relationship of words and images was ruptured when images were removed from specific works, new relationships were forged when the images reappeared in different texts. The printed image retained much of its symbolic and iconic importance as well as its ability to ferry meaning and significance into new contexts. As Luborsky states, "The image itself, irrespective of the text ... became a general one." (6) Lee Palmer Wandel follows this, explaining that "images employ a language, their own language, distinct from but not autonomous of verbal language." (7) The language of the generalized image allowed for new meanings to be established within new contexts. By transcending the boundaries of titles and editions as well as the tumultuous years of the Reformation, these woodcuts helped to create a visual language common to most readers.

The movement of printed images from one text to another and from one decade to another crossed dogmatic and cultural boundaries, coming into direct contact with the complex web of religious concerns about idolatry and visual display.

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