The Transfer of Knowledge: Art of Botanical Illustration [1491 - 1920]

Woodcut Herbals 1491-1633

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Introduction to Woodcut Herbals

One can sense the excitement generated by the development of printing in the 15th century. That excitement is illustrated in the evolution of herbals and plant illustration. Now, for the first time, people could widely share the knowledge about plants developed over the centuries. Soon, with this knowledge there were demands for illustrations of these plants for identification and also text decoration; thus, botanical illustration blossomed. Printing was introduced into Germany in the 1440's and the first herbal we will consider was printed in 1491. These first woodcuts(1), an artistic technique introduced into the West in the early 1400's, can seem to modern eyes rather rudimentary. However, seen with the eyes of contemporaries they must have been eagerly received and even revelatory. This new artistic technique was important in early printing as both illustrations and text could now be incorporated side by side as type and woodcuts and passed through the press.

One can also understand why herbals were some of the first printed books and why they became 'best sellers' of their day. Plants, perhaps even more than today, were of primary importance in everyday life. Physicians were some of the most important plantsmen of their day. Physic gardens and the many dooryard entry gardens became the pharmacies everyone relied on. The herbal is defined by Wilfrid Blunt as 'a work dealing primarily with useful, or allegedly useful, plants leaving 'florilegium' for one concerned chiefly with plants grown more for their beauty than for their utility.'(2)

Ellen Shaffer, writing in The Garden of Health about medieval herbals, says, 'And yet the books themselves demand nothing more than sympathetic interest. Their naive yet spirited woodcuts tell of familiar flowers and exotic plants, of common minerals and priceless gems, of domestic animals and fabulous monsters - all of which affect the health of man for good or ill. The books have a lively, imaginative quality long absent from our sedate modern scientific texts - for these books were created when science was young.'(3)

The development of the herbal, in both text and woodcut, was rapid. Many consider Hans Weiditz's illustrations for Brunfels' Herbarum vivae Eicones (1530-36) to be the height of woodcut artistry. Woodcuts have remained even to our own day one of the artistic media most used for the depiction of plants. In this exhibit we trace the woodcuts in herbals from Ortus Sanitatus (1491) to the second edition of Gerard's Herball (1633). The pages of many of these herbals evidence heavy usage and the reader's comments through the ages.

(1) A woodcut is an image produced from a wood block cut along the grain, usually with a knife, on which the parts not cut away form the design. Originating in the Far East, woodcutting as an art developed in Europe shortly after the year 1400. Often original wood blocks would be re-used by later authors to illustrate different works. Woodcuts are noted for the thicker, rougher character of their line.
(2) Blunt, Wilfrid and Sandra Raphael. 1979. The Illustrated Herbal. NY: Thames and Hudson/Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 10.
(3) Shaffer, Ellen. 1957. The Garden of Health. [San Francisco]: The Book Club of California. Unpaged introduction.

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