Death of the Virgin Woodcut ca. 1420-1430

Death of the Virgin. Colored Woodcut. South German, ca.1420-1430. Pasted to the inside of a 15th c. manuscript copy of Der Stachel der Liebe.

Relief prints, such as woodcuts, were one of the earliest ways to produce multiple copies of a single image. The practice first developed in Asia; it was taken up centuries later in Europe; substantial quantities of woodcuts were being printed on paper in central Europe and southern Germany by the 1420s – several decades before Gutenberg printed his Bible. The combination of relief printing and paper meant that for the first time in Europe, large swathes of the population could possess images of their own. Woodcut images were sought by people across social and economic groups, from the educated to the illiterate, the wealthy to those of modest means. The conditions that made images accessible are the same conditions that rendered them ephemeral: single sheets of paper, frequently handled and quickly produced, are less durable than books made of parchment. Very few woodcuts from the early fifteenth century still exist, and even fewer remain where their original users placed them. This woodcut is an exception. In the early fifteenth century, it was pasted to the inside cover of a heavily used manuscript copy of the popular German religious text, Der Stachel der Liebe. An inscription on the last folio of the manuscript tells us that the manuscript was sent to Sister Kunigunde Zecherin at the Dominican monastery in Medingen from her counterparts at the Katharinenkloster in Nuremberg (“disz puch gehort in daz Closter zu medingen Prediger ordens und ist dar geschickt worden von Nürmberg der swester Kungunt zecherin”). It is highly possible that the woodcut was created in Nuremberg, and was pasted into the manuscript as part of the gift. This woodcut depicts the Death of the Virgin Mary, a popular subject in late medieval European Christian art. The scene depicts the Virgin Mary on her death bed, surrounded by the Apostles. Her soul is depicted as a small child; it has left her body, escorted by angels on its way to heaven. The scene is typical of the late medieval emphasis on intimate and emotional religious scenes. As individuals across the social spectrum sought a relationship with God that was unmediated by priests and other religious authorities, they turned to images and texts that they could utilize in their personal religious practices. Latin religious texts were translated into vernacular languages – Der Stachel der Liebe is one of many translations of the thirteenth century Stimulis Amoris – alongside an explosion of original vernacular compositions. Relatively inexpensive images such as this woodcut were easily portable objects of devotion that could be contemplated at any time, empowering their owners in their pursuit of religious salvation and support. Owners folded, caressed, and kissed these images until they were destroyed through use – and sometimes, they pasted them in books, ensuring their preservation across the centuries.

See Richard S. Field, “Death of the Virgin,” in Peter Parshall et al., Origins of European Printmaking: woodcuts and their public (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005), 148-151. Page Break