ASC Rewind: Apocalypse

Blockbook Apocalypse, Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.3, Netherlands: 1430s-1440s

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes.   

This article was originally published in April 2005 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

A mid fifteenth century copy of the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament. Produced in the Netherlands, this volume consists of 42 plates of hand-coloured illustrations accompanied by explanatory text in Latin. An outstanding example of a blockbook, this work has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of the medieval woodcutter’s art.  

Plates 1 and 2: scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist. John preaches to the heathen, baptises Drusiana whilst a pagan army attempt to demolish the Church, is complained of to the Proconsul of Ephesus, and is sent to Rome to go before the Emperor Domitian.

The Apocalypse is arguably the most controversial book of the Bible. The only prophetic book of the New Testament, it reveals the God given visions of John. Although its exact date of composition is not known, most scholars agree that it was written in around 95 AD, at a time when apocalyptic writing flourished.  

Its basic disclosure is ultimately one of redemption: God will intervene at some cataclysmic point in human history (the day of reckoning), prevailing over wickedness and destroying all evil. Its fundamental concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil has fascinated the imagination of generations of readers; much of its vivid imagery and bizarre symbolism – such as the notion of the seven seals and the number of the beast – has entered popular public consciousness.  

It has been subject to widely differing interpretations – from the viewpoint of its historical setting, as a prediction of the future, as an allegorical poem on theology. Luther is said to have commented that the work ‘either finds a man mad or leaves him mad’. 

At the beginning of the vision, the author clearly identifies himself as ‘John’, writing authoritatively to the seven Churches in Asia. It is a matter of debate who this writer was: although it has been suggested that he was John the Apostle or John the Baptist, most scholars now agree to attribute the work to an otherwise unknown prophet called John.  

This version begins and ends with scenes from the apocryphal life of ‘Saint John’, commonly known from popular retellings of the saints’ lives such as the Legenda Aurea. Such events as his baptism of a converted woman called Drusiana and his miraculous ability to withstand being plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil are displayed in Plates 3 and 42 displayed above. 

The pages in blockbooks – usually incorporating both image and a condensed text – are printed entirely from woodcut blocks cut in relief. This xylographic technique for producing books flourished in mid fifteenth century Europe, at the same time that experiments in printing with moveable type began; it seems that the two technologies co-existed for a number of decades. The beginnings of the blockbook genre may be found in an earlier trend for printing single sheets of devotional religious images, sometimes accompanied by brief captions below the pictures. Blockbook plates, however, were not printed with a press but by laying a sheet of paper over an inked block and rubbing the back of the sheet to transfer the ink; the verso of each page would usually be left blank as the process resulted in too much indentation for satisfactory double-sided impressions. Books would typically be bound so that alternate openings would reveal a pair of printed pages, to be followed by a pair of blank versos (which would sometimes be glued closed). In comparison with manuscript copies of books, this was a relatively cheap way of producing multiple copies of texts, the major cost being paper – an expensive commodity at the time.  

In all, over thirty different blockbook editions survive. The Netherlands was the chief centre for their production in the fifteenth century; while some were also made in Germany, many of these were actually based on the Netherlandish models. The Apocalypse is thought to be one of the earliest examples of the genre, being first printed in Haarlem or Utrecht in c.1430. 

The imagery and illustrative arrangement were closely derived from manuscript copies of the work; these were produced prolifically in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially in England and northern France. The cycles of half-page illustrations created at this time remained influential for centuries, being reproduced in art forms such as tapestries and stained glass as well as in manuscripts. In the blockbook versions, the usual pattern was for two illustrations to be cut per plate, resulting in four scenes per opening. A small number of full-page scenes were also included. In this example, the sequence of illustrations corresponds roughly with the narrative flow of the Book of Revelation, although some of the plates seem to have been ordered somewhat arbitrarily, a confusion which possibly stems from the arrangement of the original (unidentified) manuscript upon which the blockbook was based.  

Plate 38: Chapter 20, verses 10-15 – the devil in the lake of fire and brimstone, and the lake of fire into which death and hell were cast.
Detail from Plate 38: Chapter 20, verse 10

Six different blockbook editions of the Apocalypse survive. Schreiber has identified these as belonging to two distinct closely related groupings, consisting of three editions each. Our book is a copy of the second edition from the first Netherlandish grouping. Besides having an extra two plates, it uses the same plates as the first edition, differing only in that page ‘signatures’ have been added to the pictures. In the plate reproduced to the right, for example, the inserted symbol resembling a stunted ‘p’ with a hook to the left can be clearly seen in the centre of the image, to the right of the second tree. In the edition following, the illustrations are again the same, but the text differs in having its abbreviations lengthened. This was surely an improvement as the difficulty of reading the cut gothic text is accentuated in its contracted form. The further three editions differ significantly from the preceding group and were probably produced in Germany.  

Few blockbook copies survive completely intact and our volume is no exception. Boasting only 42 plates of a possible 48, it lacks plates 8-11, 20-22 and 24 according to Schreiber’s reckoning.  

Appreciation of blockbooks today tends to focus on their arresting images, and the Apocalypse is regarded as amongst the highest artistic achievements of blockbook production. Probably following a variety of sources and models, the strength of the line could only be achieved by considerable skill in cutting. The pictures here have been enhanced by the addition of bold, watercolour washes. 

Our copy of the Apocalypse comes from the eighteenth-century library of William Hunter. There are several pages of notes pasted or tipped into its preliminary leaves. One note is by Hunter himself and demonstrates his interest in bibliography. He lists works of reference which discuss blockbooks and this copy in particular – he then goes on to discuss the contemporary theory that printing had its origins in card stamping.  

Notes on preliminary leaves

Other items of interest:

  • Another blockbook: 
    Biblia Pauperum. Blockbook Bible, Netherlands: c.1450, Sp Coll Hunterian D.s.4.
  • Medieval manuscripts of the Apocalypse: 
    An incomplete copy in fourteenth century Wycliffe New Testament MS Hunter 191 (T.8.23); a copy in fifteenth century French/Flemish manuscript (also including Acts of the Apostles, etc): MS Hunter 348 (U.8.16); a French copy, c. 1480s, illustrated by 48 half page miniaturesMS Hunter 398 (V.2.18).

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