UNKNOWN MASTER, German
(active 1490s)

Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

1493
Woodcut, 254 x 222 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The picture shows an illustration for the Nuremberg Chronicle.

One of the earliest professional book publishers was Anton Koberger, the godfather of Albrecht Dürer. In 1491, Koberger issued an impressive book, known as the Schatzbehalter (Treasury of the True Riches of Salvation), containing ninety-one woodcut illustrations, and in 1493 the more ambitious Liber Cronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, now known as The Nuremberg Chronicle. The text and pictures audaciously cover the history of the world from the Creation down to the time of the book's publication. It became another best seller in its day and was issued in two editions, one in black-and-white, the other (costing three times as much as the cheaper edition) coloured by hand.

Profusely illustrated with large and small cuts, it contained some 1809 pictures, though only 654 different blocks were employed. They tell the story of the world, relate episodes from the Old and New Testaments, describe historical events, and offer views of cities and portraits of famous men and women. Ancient and contemporary cities were depicted by the same wood blocks - only the legend or title was changed. Forty-four images representing famous men and women were used over and over again - 226 times, to be exact. Thus, Thales, Paris, and Dante all have the "same look."

For this book a contract was drawn between the wealthy backers and the publisher. Nineteen months were allowed for its completion, and a large staff of artists and woodcutters was retained. This accounts for the variety of styles and skills, which results in an occasional splendid illustration (especially at the beginning) and a plethora of crudely executed blocks repeated throughout the text.

Nonetheless, this is a historic document, for it was the first great picture book offered to the middle classes. Aesthetically it does not rival books produced shortly later in Nuremberg and in other cities, but for the print lover there is much excitement to be derived from leafing through the complete work or contemplating many of the individual pages.