June 10, 2022

Shining the Light through Block Prints

         I recently got a chance to look around Yale University’s beautiful Humanities Quadrangle building (formerly known as the Hall of Graduate Studies, built in 1932), and I suddenly recognized an old friend.  No, not one of my classmates at the reunion, but Jost Amman, the sixteenth century wood block artist and carver.  I’ve featured Amman’s self-portrait on this blog (as well as a number of his other pieces), and there he was on a stained glass window with the light coming through.  Further exploration revealed that many (if not all) of the windows were decorated with reproductions of wood block prints.  What fun to recognize some, and to meet new friends!
        The original wood block print from which this next window was adapted dates to 1493, and presumably was chosen because it depicts a theater, coming from a book of plays.  It’s a fantastic image with lots of great details, like the crowded audience and more people coming up the steps, and the elaborately decorated pillars and other architecture.  However, somewhere along the line someone decided to censor the label on the scroll above the ground floor - which was probably the right choice on a college campus, since the original block print says “Fornices,” revealing that the ground floor
 is a brothel.  Apparently a draftsman in the office of the building’s architect (James Gamble Rogers) picked for inclusion in the architecture the opening line of the 1921 popular 
novel Scaramouche, thinking it a bit of a prank to feature something so distinctly unscholarly.  Perhaps the artist of this window was following the same impulse!
        I was able to trace the ship back to a 1502 edition of a book of maritime law.  I like how the artist of the window has used a bit of license in changing the pattern in the sky, as well as completing the edges of the ship.
        The designers of the Yale buildings were presumably trying to represent a range of arts and sciences in their decor, and for the more modern steam engine they had to find a more recent image.  This window depicts a locomotive built in 1804 by Richard Trevithick.  It was the first locomotive to successfully run on rails, and was the grand kick-off of the age of trains.  This wood engraving of it comes from a book published in 1900.  Once again the stained glass artist has exercised artistry of his or her own in cropping the composition and adding a background glorifying the magnificent power of the steam engine.  This appeals to all my steampunk sensibilities.
        Finally, I include this Pegasus because I thought it made a wonderful motif on the window, however, I was unable to track down the original on which it was based.
        Ever since I was a child I have been a huge fan of Collegiate Gothic architecture (which should probably more accurately be called “collegiate Elizabethan,” but I’m not a historian of architecture, so I won’t quibble.)  And perhaps no one does it better than Yale!  The level of care that went into every detail of this building is spectacular.  You can also revisit a prior post featuring some of the stone creatures that decorate Yale buildings (including the griffin that decorates the heading of this very blog).
       I always like to say that making relief block prints is carving light into darkness, but how much more wonderful is that light when it’s really shining through in the form of windows!

[Pictures: Stained glass from Yale’s Humanities Quadrangle, 1932 (photos by AEGN, 2022);

Der Formschneider, wood block print by Jost Amman from Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, 1568 (Image from Yale University Library);

Theatrum, wood block print from Comoediae by Terence, 1493 (Image from National Gallery of Art);

Title Page, wood block print from Libre de consolat tractant dels fets maritims, 1502 (Image from Sotheby’s);

Trevithick’s Locomotive, wood engraving (by H.W. Benno?) from The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century by Edward W. Byrn, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive).]


Cari Lyn said...

How much it must have been so much fun finding all of those and exploring where they originated.
And "carving light into darkness", what a beautiful way to express what you do!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hello, Cari Lyn, thanks for stopping by. Yes, block printing is magic! ;)