Southern Germany, Swabia, 15th century
Sheet - h:38.70 w:28.80 cm (h:15 3/16 w:11 5/16 inches)
Severance and Greta Millikin Trust
The Chinese invented handmade paper in the 1st or 2nd century BC and used wooden blocks to print images since at least the 7th century AD. The craft did not reach Europe until the 12th century when the earliest woodcuts were printed on fabric. The first paper mill was established in Fabriano, Italy, in 1276. By the early 15th century, a steady supply of paper was available and a multitude of woodcuts was produced. Although some woodcuts were secular, such as playing cards, most had religious subjects. These inexpensive prints, sold at pilgrimage sites and fairs, served to spiritually enlighten a mostly illiterate public. Simple, direct images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints were pasted onto altarpieces and walls for personal devotion. Because the images were invested with near magical powers, the woodcuts were also used as amulets, sewn into clothing and placed in books and other personal objects. Cheap, abundant, and utilitarian, relatively few prints survived. A single image woodcut on a single full sheet of paper, like the Pietà, are exceedingly rare.