March 6, 2012

Two Round Woodcuts

        Here are two woodcuts from the very beginning of the sixteenth century, both of a philosophical nature, and both designed in a circular form.  And both have lots of wonderful details that I'm really enjoying.
        The first depicts Adam and Eve.  It was originally made for a 1498 Bible and thereafter used for all subsequent editions by the same publisher.  What's so pleasing to me about this version of the Garden of Eden is how beautiful the garden really is.  The architectural fountain somehow doesn't seem to belong in a garden symbolic of the natural  state, but it's quite lovely.  I like all the plants and animals, too, the spotted creature in the foreground, the birds filling every space in the sky, the stag and unicorn, the leaves and flowers all across the ground…  But perhaps most interesting is the circular composition beneath the roots of a tree.  That design seems to emphasize the symbolic rather than literal importance of the story.  This isn't just about some disobedient people, it's about the very roots of life growing up into the present in all its richness.  And that break in the border at the top... was that a mistake where the blade slipped when the carver was clearing the white area on the tree trunk?  It could easily be, yet somehow it just serves to give one more opening where growth continues right out of the box that defines the story.
        The second print looks somewhat more "primitive" to me, despite its slightly
later date.  It dates from a 15o4 book called The Heart of Philosophy.  The outer circle depicts the signs of the zodiac, the next tier is seasonal scenes representing the year, and the middle shows a man and a woman, though their significance is beyond me.  But once again I like the telling details.  I can see plowing, harvesting, and threshing.  Everything is sparely depicted, but with nothing important left out.  (And although this image isn't big enough for me to see the details as well as I'd like, it looks to me like the Gemini are a girl and a boy, like my T and P.)

       Both these images come from the Library of Congress's on-line exhibition "A Heavenly Craft," and there you can read lots more details about the images and the books they come from.  (Scroll about halfway down the page to find these two, but feel free to dawdle on your way down, enjoying some of the other amazing block prints along the way.)

[Pictures: Adam and Eve in the Garden, woodcut probably designed by Antoine Vérard's "Chief Designer," 1498 (this imprint from a 1517 edition of the Bible);
Cycle of Life, woodcut from The Heart of Philosophy by Jean de la Garde, 1504 (this imprint from a 1515 edition).

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