Woodcuts were used in ancient Egypt and Babylonia for impressing intaglio designs into unpressed bricks and by the Romans for stamping letters and symbols. The Chinese used wood blocks for stamping patterns on textiles and for illustrating books. Woodcuts appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 15th cent., when they were used to make religious pictures for distribution to pilgrims, on playing cards and simple prints, and for the block book which preceded printing. At that time the artist and the artisan were one, the same person designing the cut and carving the block. One of the first dated European woodcuts is a St. Christopher of 1423.
After the invention of the printing press, woodcuts, being inked in the same way as type, lent themselves admirably to book illustration. Albrecht Pfister first put them to this use c.1460. Other early woodcut illustrations are in the Bibles of the late 15th cent. and in the French Lyons edition (1493) of the works of Terence. The first Roman book with woodcuts appeared in 1467, but Venice became the center of Italian wood engraving. In the 16th cent. in France woodcuts frequently served to illustrate books of hours. The actual cutting was often performed by a specialist rather than by the designer.
In Germany, where the form was particularly well developed, Dürer and Hans Holbein the younger were the most eminent woodcut designers of the Renaissance. Dürer's Life of the Virgin (1509–10) and Great Passion (1510–11) and Holbein's Dance of Death (1523–26) are among the best-known works of these masters. Lucas Cranach the elder, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Hans Baldung also worked in wood engraving, employing a chiaroscuro technique originated by Jobst de Negker of Augsburg.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.