The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1550-1600: A Pictorial Catalogue - Vol. 1

The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1550-1600: A Pictorial Catalogue - Vol. 1

The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1550-1600: A Pictorial Catalogue - Vol. 1

The German Single-Leaf Woodcut, 1550-1600: A Pictorial Catalogue - Vol. 1


The first fifty years of the sixteenth century witnessed the flowering of the Renaissance and the furor of the Reformation. While the Renaissance received its greatest impetus in Italy, the Reformation was brought to the fore in Germany when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the doors of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The fervent mood of the period was recorded by a group of exceptional German artists, among them Albrecht Diirer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Burgkmair the Elder, and Hans Baldung Grien.

The second half of the century stands in marked contrast to this era. In 1550, Julius III became Pope, the first of a series of uninspired pontiffs. Six years later, the illustrious Emperor Charles V (1500—1558), whose realm reached from Hungary to Spain, withdrew from affairs of state in order to lead a life of contemplation, tending his manicured garden at Yuste in Estremadura. His abdication symbolizes the trend towards reexamination and Counter-Reformation during the ensuing years on the continent.

Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England in 1558. The Venetians put an end to the Ottoman presence in the Mediterranean with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and in 1588 Her Britannic Majesty’s Navy under Sir Francis Drake destroyed the Spanish Armada, establishing the British hegemony of the seas, and at the same time shifting the balance of power in Europe.

In Spain, King Philip II became increasingly obsessed with the importance of official paper work, secluding himself in the cavernous silence of the forbidding Escorial. At Prague, Rudolph II, the patron of Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler, similarly closeted himself in Hradcany Castle, his depressions unrelieved by the incomparable art collection he had amassed. In sum, the exuberance of the early Renaissance began to ebb and to mellow, to be replaced by new and different approaches to life, the sciences, and the arts.

This brief glance at the political situation and the mood of the era may give some idea of the atmosphere in which artists worked. The changed environment is reflected in remarkable fashion by the new and different quality of the visual arts during the years from 1550 to 1600, and especially in single-leaf woodcuts.

In contrast to book illustrations, effectively reserved for the intelligentsia, these woodcuts were intended for the general public. Many of them appeared as broadsheets, the newspapers of the time. As in the case of single-leaf woodcuts of other periods, their very survival attests to their popularity. But the uniqueness of these prints is especially apparent if they are compared to those of the preceding fifty years.

Only a few artists now dominated the scene. The most prolific among them were Tobias Stimmer and Jost Amman, both born in Switzerland but active in Germany during the years of their maturity, and Matthias Gerung, a native of Swabia. The great majority of designers of woodcuts remain anonymous, known to us only by their initials or from broadsheets marked solely with the printers’ addresses. The works of many of the artists have survived only in a few examples . . .

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