What a Pretty Picture!

Previous blog posts: introduction, origins, audience
Blog posts to come: digital afterlives

As we have seen in my other blog posts, my book, Ghesneden figveren vvyten ouden testamente naer tleuene met huerlier bedietsele, is full of illustrations. In fact, I think Ghesneden figveren actually translates to ‘carved figures’ and the title is describing the woodcut illustrations on every page of my book. The illustrations in the book are brilliant. Each page has a unique illustration that depicts a particular scene from the Bible that is captioned below the image. As we saw in the audience blog post, the illustrations are helpful in allowing the illiterate to also absorb the book.

There are four reasons why I know the illustrations in my text are woodcut illustrations and not intaglio printing (another form of early illustration technique). Firstly, and most obviously, because the CBB listing for the book describes it as woodcut illustrations. Secondly, because there is no evidence of intaglio printing. In order to print an illustration using the intaglio method, a metal plate has to be run through a roller meaning it will leave an impression on the pages of the book, I see no evidence of that in my text. Thirdly, it was much more challenging to do intaglio printing on a page that also contained text, which all my pages do. Fourthly, the illustrator of my book, Bernard Solomon, was known for his work in wood-engraving. This again suggests that woodcut was the means of illustration in this text. Each of these points individually suggests that woodcut was the method used for the illustrations, and collectively, they verify that it was.

Here’s a little bit more information on the woodcut process and how it works. The woodcut process is the “oldest technique” in illustration work and is a form of “relief printing.” The woodcut process involves a “cut with a knife along the plank” (ABC for book collectors) of a piece of wood which is then transferred onto some paper. The image can be transferred from the wood to the paper three different ways. The first method is stamping, this was used primarily from 1400-1450 and was when the woodcut was inked and then pressed down onto a surface (paper) in order to make an impression. The second method is rubbing which became popular in Europe after 1450. This involved placing the inked woodcut ink-up on a table and placing paper on top of it. You would then rub the paper in order for the image to transfer. The third method is presses, this was initially just a simple weighted press system but became more complex after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press.

Time-wise, because my book dates from 1557, the woodcut illustrations could have been made using any of these three methods as they were all in use by that time. This is especially important because of the location of the production of my book, Lyon, France. Lyon was a hub of book printing. By 1500, Lyon was one of the top five European printing hubs despite only having a printing press for twenty-seven years, in that time 1308 books were printed. The other four were: Venice (3651), Paris (2939), Rome (1851), and Cologne (1623). This emphasizes that my book was produced in a location where printing was a big industry and so it was more likely for there to be printing innovations happening in this place.

An example of the standard layout of the illustrations in the pages of my book.

However, I think it is most likely that the woodcuts in my particular book were made using a printing press, perhaps a more rudimentary set-up than other printers at the time but still a printing press. My reasoning for thinking this is emphasized by the amount of printing happening in Lyon at the turn of the century but also by the career of Jean de Tournes (the printer of my book). Before founding his own company he was a compositor for Sébastien Gryphe which meant that he was the person who “set the type” (ABC for book collectors) for the printing press. This implies that he was trained to use a printing press and therefore would have likely used one in his own business. However, the alignment on most of the pages is not the same (the image below shows an example of a misaligned page). By this I mean that the bordered illustration is not always straight and centered on the page, whereas the text is much more uniformly placed. This is why I suggest the book was made using a rudimentary printing press (or maybe an apprentice printer) because for such a specialist book there are some inconsistencies in page registration that suggest a little less care was put in to the production of the illustrations of the text. This could also relate to the way the paper dried during the printing process as the paper used in my book would need to be dampened before putting it on the printing press. This means that as the paper dried, the misalignment may have been emphasized.

I talked a little in my last blog post about why the illustrations were so important in my book but in summary, the illustrations are a tool to help people understand the different Bible passages included in the text. The illustrations are absolutely integral to the way my book is read and understood. As they are present on every page of the book, the text can be read as a celebration of Bernard Solomon’s amazing illustrations. 

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