Apocalypse block-book

Newberry Inc. 15, p. 19
Newberry Inc. 15, p. 19
Newberry Inc. 15, p. 22
Newberry Inc. 15, p. 22
Hellmouth, Newberry Inc. 15, p. 43.
Hellmouth, Newberry Inc. 15, p. 43. Click to enlarge.
Newberry Inc. 15, "blank" reverse side of page.
Newberry Inc. 15, "blank" reverse side of page, showing bleed-through of the brown ink.

Block-books are early printed works made by incising both the illustrations and the text, usually on woodblocks. They had a brief period of popularity in the late fifteenth and very early sixteenth century, especially in German-speaking regions of Europe. The Newberry has a lovely hand-colored example of a Book of the Apocalypse, one of the most popular block-book subjects.

The pages are printed on only one side of bifolia (this is also called anopisthographic printing) which are then folded in half to create two pages of text/illustrations facing each other. The reverse side is left blank. So as you page through the book you see facing printed pages followed by facing blank pages. The book includes no title page, date, or printer’s identification.

The lively and charming illustrations tell the Apocalypse story for those who could not read the minimal Latin text. The angels, dragons, multiheaded monsters, and fiery hellmouth in the figures to the left are just a sampling of the images. Click on the images for an enlarged pop-up version.

The printing process was unusual, as no press was used. A water-based brown ink was rolled onto the woodblocks, then dampened paper was set on the blocks and rubbed with a wood or leather tool. The illustrations were colored by hand later. This kind of ink produced substantial bleed-through onto the blank side of the paper, possibly one reason for the one-sided printing.

In 1891, Wilhelm Schreiber identified six distinct editions of this block-book; the Newberry’s is an example of the fifth. But according to Nigel Palmer, Newberry Inc. 15 is unique among other surviving fifth editions in its ordering of pages. Most copies are printed so that the forty-eight leaves are made up in either three gatherings of sixteen leaves each or four gatherings of twelve leaves each. By contrast, the Newberry incunable was printed as twenty-four bifolia—folio 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and so on—and bound in sequence.

Citation: Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis, block-book printed in Germany, c. 1470. Newberry Inc. 15.

Notes and further reading

  • Gertrud Bing, “The Apocalypse Block-Books and Their Manuscript Models,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes V (1942): 143-158.
  • Nigel F. Palmer, “Blockbooks: Texts and Illustrations Printed from Wood Blocks,” Journal of the Printing Historical Society N.S. 11 (Spring 2008): 5-23.
  • _____. Handwritten note in Newberry Inc. 15 information file, dated March 25, 2009.
  • Wilhelm Schreiber, Manuel de l’amateur de la gravure sur bois et sur métal au XVe siècle (Berlin: A. Cohn, 1891).

Posted by Karen Christianson, Associate Director, Center for Renaissance Studies

Comments

What a great blog Karen! I learned about incunabula during my previous semester and this semester I will studying descriptive bibliography, but I had never known this style of printing even existed! I can't wait to see this in person, you have enthused me!

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