Medical Xylography

 Showing anatomy, surgery, bloodletting, and other medical procedures in print

Examples of European medical images (xylography) in books, created by use of carved woodcut blocks

 

Xylography can be defined as the art of engraving wood for the purpose of printing.  The wooden block is gouged and engraved along its grain to allow for the image to be printed on paper. This is done with a knife or chisel. What is left can be covered by ink with a roller (known as a brayer) and then, when pressed onto paper, the cut away areas of the block are white while the remaining image flush with the surface of the block will appear black.  A more complex technique was sometimes used to produce “Chiaroscuro woodcuts,” which are multi-colored.  That technique was invented in Germany in the early 16th century.

 

The art of xylography likely originated as early as the 8th century in Chinese Buddhist temples. In 764 the Empress Koken commissioned one million small wooden pagodas to be built in Japan.  Each pagoda contained a small woodblock scroll that was printed with a Buddhist text.  The purpose of the text was to give thanks for the suppression of the Emi Rebellion of 764. Woodblocks were used to produce religious scrolls and books in Japan in the following centuries, but non-religious works were not produced there until the 16th century.

        

A European print and its original woodcut block

Click image to enlarge

European use of the woodcut as a means to produce old master prints began in the 15th century. One of the earliest such works is The Fire Madonna, which is in the Cathedral of Forli in Italy.  Most of the earliest European woodcuts have religious themes.  At the beginning of the 15th century there was an explosion in the sales of poorly made woodcuts, and there was a subsequent fall in standards.  There was a lack of sophistication until the third quarter of the 16th century, when German and Italian artisans raised the level of the craft.  Albrecht Durer was a master who brought the craft of xylography to its pinnacle at the end of the 15th Century.

 

Printing with moveable type began in the mid 15th century, and the combination of this printing technique with woodblock illustrations gave rise to the illustrated book. Millions of books were produced in Europe in the late 15th through late 17th centuries.  There were likewise many thousands of original wooden blocks painstakingly created to produce the illustrations.  Oftentimes, illustrations were “borrowed” from one book to another, either with or without permission. This is why the prints may look so similar in books by various authors.

 

Wooden printing blocks were designed by an artist/author and then carved by specialized artisans called “formschneiders.”  This was done after a paper drawing was laid down on the block or if the illustration was drawn directly onto the block itself. Perhaps the height of the formschneider’s craft was seen in Germany, where carvers such as Hieronymus Andreae, Hans Lutzelburger, and Just de Negker became well known for their skill in carving the blocks. There were also specialists who were expert in producing blank blocks of the correct type and consistency for carving. (1)

 

Sadly, almost all of the original wooden blocks used to produce book illustrations in the 15th through 17th centuries have been lost. They were used until they could no longer produce a good image, and likely then cast into the fireplace.  Sometimes they were re-carved to extend their life, but most commonly they were simply discarded at the end of a print run.

 

Amazingly, a large grouping of original early printing blocks were collected in the 19th century and kept together until recently.  These blocks were in all genres: religion, art, history, and science.  The Arbittier Museum of Medical History is very fortunate to have been able to acquire all of the medically related blocks in this important archive.  These include ones showing anatomy, surgery, bloodletting, and other medical procedures. Many of the blocks are associated with specific editions of important early medical texts, such as those by Pare and Hundt.  All of the blocks will be described on the site in the near future.

Examples of woodcut blocks actually used in 16th - 17th century medical books

 Xylography Blocks Index:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Click on images to enlarge

No. Printed image Wood block Description of Source (Book, etc.)
1

Author: Johannes Eichmann Dryander (1500-1560) of Wetter, Germany.

Book" Anatomiae Pars Prior. Date: 1537.  

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2 Author: Hieronymous Brunschwig (ca. 1450-ca. 1512) 

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3 Author: Ambroise Pare (ca. 1510-1590).

Book: Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré. Date: ca. 1585. 

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4 Author: Giovanni Andrea Dalla Croce (1514-1575).

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5 Author: Giovanni Andrea Dalla Croce (1514-1575).

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6 Author Unknown. Date: ca. 1510.   This is a very early block known as the "Wound Man" or "Wounded Man." It is an early version of an image printed in many different editions through the 16th century. 

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7 Author: Magnus Hundt (1449-1519).

Book: "Antropologium de hominis dignitate." Date" 1501.

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8 Author: Johann Wolhopter 1512,

Book: Ain new subtill und fast kunstreich werck  This block shows an Arabic bath house cupping scene.

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9

Author: Renes Descartes (1596-1650).

Book: Treatise on Man."  Date: ca. 1664.

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10

Author: Johann Wolhopter.

Book:"Essay on Phebilabium". Date: 1512. 

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11 Author: Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605).

Book: "Monstrorum Historia" from the series "Opera Omnia" (General Natural History). Date: 1642. 

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12 Author: Wilhelm Fabry (1560-1634).

Book: "Observationum et Curationum Chirurgicarum Centuriae."  Date: 1641. 

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13  

Author: Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Book: "Treatise on Man".  Date: ca. 1664.

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14

 

Author: Johann Wolhopter.

Book: "Essay on Phebilabium". Date: 1512. 

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15 Author: Jodocus Willich (1501-1552).

Book:  CORNELII TACITI EQUITIS ROMANI (1551) 

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16 Author: Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (1446-1530).

Book: "Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam." Date: 1523.

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17 Author: Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (1446-1530).

 Book: "Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam." Date: 1523.

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18 Author:  Hans von Gersdorff, a German surgeon.

 Book: printed in Germany in 1517.  

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19 Author: Unknown

Book: Unknown

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20 Author: Johann Dryander (1500-1560). Book: Anatomiae, hoc est, corporis humani dissectionis  

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 Xylography Blocks Index:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7