UNKNOWN MASTER, German
(active c. 1470 in Rome)
Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)c. 1470
Woodcut, 219 x 162 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
The block book is a picture book with both the image and the type carved into one wood block, so that the picture and inscriptions are printed simultaneously. In this instance, however, full pages were given over to the illustrations; the appropriate text was printed separately from a full-sized block and usually placed to confront the picture when the book was open.
The message or story was clear, even for those who could not read, in the same sense that the frescoes painted on church walls by Giotto and his predecessors were understood by even the unschooled viewer. Only occasionally was a book published whose text was of greater significance than its illustrations. One such example is the Mirabilia Urbis Romae (Marvels of the City of Rome), a kind of guidebook to Roman history, describing its churches and relics. It was first published as a block book, probably by a German printer in Rome, sometime before 1475. Between 1484 and 1500, over thirty editions printed in in movable type were issued. This work was generally acquired by those who journeyed to Rome.
The Ars Moriendi was the most popular and broadly circulated of all the block books, for it dealt with a subject never far from one's thoughts - the hopes and fears of the living. During a period when successive plagues decimated cities, kings and nobles, rich and poor, worried about the hereafter and its possible rewards or punishments. The illustrations in the Ars Moriendi showed angels protecting the good, and demons torturing the sinner.
This book was almost a necessity, for the clergy, overworked as it was, did not always arrive in time to offer solace to the dying. Through the study of this book, man was instructed in how to meet Death and how to avoid the temptations - Impatience, Pride, Avarice, etc. The final scene is one of triumph, for at the hour of death all temptations have been resisted. The enraged demons acknowledge their impotence and fly off to try again at another bedside.