Imagine living in a world without art. For most people, prior to the fifteenth century, “images were not only one-of-a- kind but rare, generally found locked away in palaces, to which few had access, or affixed to the wall of a church.”1 The technology of printmaking, which began around 1400, suddenly made it possible to mass-produce images. The initial demand driving the early print market was the desire for playing cards and cheap religious pictures. Prints provided a means of mass- producing these objects that brought them within the reach of even the poorest members of society.
The first printed illustrations began to appear in Northern Europe in the early 1400s, at the end of the so-called Dark Ages. The 1400s was a time of tremendous social and economic change in Europe. The decimation of the Bubonic Plague left the population smaller, but richer and increasingly urbanized. Renewed world exploration brought new technologies and ideas, while the rise of secular power loosened the grip of religion, paving the way for the great artistic developments of the Renaissance.
The story begins with the development of the primitive craft of woodcuts pressed on paper to communicate simple ideas – playing cards and religious indulgences.
“Replicated images helped to structure private religious practice, transmit beliefs, disseminate knowledge about material facts, and graph abstract ideas. Mass-produced pictures made it feasible for people of all stations to possess them, thereby initiating a change in the role of images that eventually helped alter the definition of art itself.”2
In the early 1400s, the technology required to make paper arrived with travelers from China, coinciding with a widespread availability of cloth rags in Europe.3 Enterprising individuals in both the secular and the spiritual communities were quick to take advantage of this wonderful new technology. The first woodcuts were playing cards produced in Germany at the beginning of the 15th century.4 Wealthy Italians introduced the sport to Europe, using beautifully drawn, hand painted decks similar to ones used by the Mamelukes in Egypt.5 By the early 15th century card games were becoming popular with all classes, fueling a demand for cheap cards.
Liechtensteinsches Spiel, Woodcut deck of cards printed on two sheets of paper in Germany circa 1440-1450.6
In Germany an unknown entrepreneur saw his opportunity and German craftsmen were soon printing out cards by the hundreds. By the late 1400s cheap decks of playing cards had spread across Europe and card-making shops were being established everywhere.
Christian authorities were also quick to understand the potential of printmaking to produce cheap images, both to educate and reinforce church authority and to raise money. Images of saints were popular as protection, with different saints protecting against different calamities.
The first image below is the Buxheim St. Christopher, 1423. Latin Inscription translates as: "In whatsoever day thou seest the likeness of St Christopher, In that same day thou wilt from death no evil blow incur".
The church practice of selling Indulgences (time subtracted from one’s stay in purgatory before being allowed into heaven), previously confined mostly to the wealthy, could now be expanded to include even the poor. They functioned much in the way modern municipal bonds do today, being mass- produced and sold to finance the building of churches or the prosecution of crusades against heretics.
The development of metal-plate printing in the mid- fifteenth century got the attention of a rising class of artists emerging in the Northern Renaissance. Printing from a metal engraving was refined and first practiced by goldsmiths and armorers. Etching and engraving on a metal plate allowed the artist to produce works with much greater detail and fine shadings than woodcut reliefs, approaching the subtlety of painting. The earliest examples of prints as art also originate in Germany, with the production of works by an artist known only as Master ES, a prolific individual thought to have created more than300 engraved plates, including this suite of playing cards, third image below.
By the end of the 1400s Martin Schoengauer and his protege, Albrecht Durer, solidified printmaking as a truly artistic medium. He began his training as a goldsmith, engraving copper plates in his twenties. In less than a century, printmaking had evolved from a simple craft to a respected artistic endeavor.