February 17, 2005 Exhibition on the Woodcut in Early Printed Books Opens April 7

Press Contact: Audrey Fischer 202-707-0022
Public Contact: Daniel De Simone 202-707-3402
Contact: View the Web site.

The Library of Congress has organized a special exhibition of 84 rare books from its Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection that are illustrated with woodcuts from the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Titled "A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books," the exhibition will be on display from April 7 through July 9, in the South Gallery of the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C.

The books on display were formerly owned by British collector C.W. Dyson Perrins (1864–1958), heir to the Lea and Perrins fortune, who sold them at auction in 1946 and 1947. Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891–1979), retired chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and a noted philanthropist and collector, purchased 84 titles at the sale and was its most important buyer. The books were deeded to the Library of Congress in 1943 as part of Rosenwald’s larger gift of illustrated books, a collection considered to be one of the most important private libraries formed in the 20th century.

In the early 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg mastered the art of printing with moveable type. This method of printing can be credited not only for a revolution in the production of books, but also for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts.

During the same period, the woodcut attained a significant role in the illustration and decoration of books. Carving an image into a plank or block of wood, then impressing the image on paper or vellum, was a process commonly used in Europe early in the 15th century. A decade after Gutenberg ’s invention, printers found that they could combine woodcut blocks with metal type and print both image and text at the same time. The use of woodcuts in printed books made it possible for the first time to print identical copies of illustrated books, resulting in a powerful explosion of visual information, which greatly contributed to the standardization of knowledge throughout Europe.

The exhibition, which will be on display in close proximity to the Library’s vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible, explores how the artistic influences of Renaissance painters, illuminators and sculptors transformed the woodcut into a medium of fine art. Many of the books in the display are on religious subjects and contain mages that reflect the dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western Europe.

Exhibition Highlights

The exhibition highlights include a 1484 edition of Juan de Torquemada’s "Meditationes," printed in Rome by Stephan Plannck. This book is illustrated with 33 half-page woodcuts, the first series of woodcut images to appear in a book printed in Italy. The exhibition also includes the very rare 1495 Florentine "Epistole e Evangelii," an Italian-language edition of the gospels, illustrated with 144 woodcuts. Many scholars consider this edition to be one of the most important illustrated books printed in Florence in the 15th century, because it typifies the Renaissance style that developed in the 1490s.

Also included are books that are known in only a few copies. This group includes Johann Schönsperger’s "Passio domini Jesu Christi," printed in Ausgburg in 1491; "Dye Siben Cursz," a rare German book of hours printed in Ulm by Conrad Dinckmut, also in 1491; Johann Landen ’s Cologne edition of "Zeitlöcklein des Lebens und Ledens Christi," printed around 1498; Antoine Verard’s "L’Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir," printed in Paris, 1493-1494; Gerard Leeu’s very rare edition of "Mediationes de vita et passione Jesu Christi," printed in Antwerp in 1498; and Jacobus Wolff de Pforzheim’s well-illustrated edition of Aesop’s fables, printed in Basel in 1501.

The exhibition will be accessible on the Library’s Web site.

Exhibition Catalog

"A Heavenly Craft" is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog that explores the themes of the exhibition. With an introduction by Daniel De Simone, curator of the Library’s Lessing J. Rosenwald collection, the catalog includes descriptions of all of the books in the exhibition and three scholarly essays by Paul Needham, Lillian Armstrong and Daniela Laube, experts in the field of early printed books, medieval manuscripts and old master prints.

The hardcover catalog is available for $50 in bookstore and in the Library of Congress Sales Shop. The Library’s Sales Shop also offers a softcover edition for $35 (credit card orders: 888-682-3557). Online orders can be made at www.loc.gov/shop.


An all-day symposium on the woodcut in early printed books will be held at the Library of Congress from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, in the Mumford Room, sixth floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. The event is free and open to the public but seating is limited. For more information, contact Daniel De Simone at (202) 707-3402, ddes@loc.gov.

Exhibition Tour

"A Heavenly Craft" made its debut at the Grolier Club in New York on Dec. 8, 2004, where it remained on view through Feb. 7, 2005. Founded in 1884, the Grolier Club is America’s oldest and largest bibliophilic society dedicated to the history of the book and printing.

Following its showing at the Library of Congress, the exhibition will travel to Dallas, its final venue, where it will be on view from Sept. 15 to Dec. 9, 2004, at the Bridwell Library of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. The Bridwell Library is internationally known for its fine collections of early printed books and has a long tradition of mounting exhibitions devoted to important collections of rare books.


The exhibition, "A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books," is made possible by the generous support of Arthur Ortenberg and Elisabeth Claiborne, the Long Island Community Foundation-Krasnoff Family Fund, Fred Krimendahl and Emilia Saint-Amand and Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. (Bud) Smith. The accompanying exhibition catalog and symposium are supported by generous gifts from the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (www.fabsbooks.org), Jonathan A. Hill, Ray and Lorraine Perryman, The Berkley Foundation Inc., Donna L. and Robert H. Jackson and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.


PR 05-034
ISSN 0731-3527