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Technicolor Middle Ages

From Avatar to Wrath of the Titans, the 3-D movie is now experiencing a renaissance. But films like these aren’t the first examples of creators attempting to simulate experience. You might just find a medieval equivalent of these big-budget motion pictures in Blood, Gold, and Fire: Coloring Early German Woodcuts, now on view in Gallery 202a.

The brilliantly colored, inexpensive, and disposable devotional woodcuts similarly allowed their purchasers to enter into the narrative. For example, new perspectival tricks coupled with garish, aggressive colors particularly encouraged viewers of the Roman Catholic faith to imagine themselves in The Passion of the Christ. Armchair pilgrims abounded, devouring visual travel narratives to the Holy Land and back that doubled as meditations on Christ’s final hours. In a Michael Wolgemut woodcut (on view for three months only), the blood streaming down Christ’s body onto the column, and dripping onto the floor, was never part of the original design. Yet the heavy-handed coloring completes the image, its mixture of opaque and transparent pigments running rampant.

The fact that the same colors reappear on the illustration on the reverse of the page suggests the entire book was colored by the same workshop that printed it. While reds predominate in this installation, other colors proved meaningful in the same era. Expensive azure blues were often reserved for the garb of the Madonna, and rich burnished gold leaf mimicked more traditional hand-drawn miniature painting. The cultural resonance of the blues in particular still informs some contemporary art, for instance, the powdery blue field Ed Ruscha adopted may be a sincere nod to his own Catholicism: SHE SURE KNEW HER DEVOTIONALS, on view in Gallery 125 through January 13, 2013.

To avoid fading, hand-colored prints and drawings are exposed to light at the Art Institute for a maximum of three months every five years. Four of these rare early hand-colored woodcuts will be exchanged halfway through Blood, Gold, and Fire. Early printed color can remain on display longer. Note the never-before-exhibited green and black woodcut by Hans Wechtlin in Gallery 207a (until December 2012), in which the mythological Alcon saves his infant son from a nasty serpent. A range of 17th-century Italian engravings and woodcuts in red and brown will also appear in Gallery 209a (beginning in October 2012). Finally, for even more early German woodcuts, (available online as part of the Turning the Pages project), investigate digitized books from Prints and Drawings and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries Special Collections. Blood, Gold, and Fire: Coloring Early German Woodcuts runs through mid-February 2013 in Gallery 202a.

Image Credit: Michael Wolgemut and Workshop, The Scourging of Christ, p. 70 from the Treasury (Schatzbehalter), 1491. Woodcut hand-colored on ivory laid paper.  Print Sales Miscellaneous Fund.