Missale Bambergense Bamberg: Johann Pfeyl, 29 May 1499
This Crucifixion woodcut, printed on vellum, was pasted inside the binding of a Missal, a book containing the directions and texts needed to officiate at Mass, by a monk in the Dominican monastery in Nuremberg. The woodcut mirrors an image traditionally found within the missal text marking the opening of the Canon of the Mass, in this copy spectacularly illuminated. The Nuremberg Crucifixion is extraordinary amongst fifteenth century single-sheet prints in that it depicts a generic patron, the figure at the foot of the cross, alongside a blank shield into which an owner could insert his own arms.
The prototype of this woodcut was published by Georg Stuchs of Nuremberg, and both volumes in which the two known impressions have been found reveal close associations with the city. The Cambridge volume came from the Dominican monastery in Nuremberg, as is attested by the inscription in the initial D on folio 204v: pro conuentum fratrum ordinis praedicatorum in Nuremberg (for the brethren of the Dominican Order in Nuremberg). The Munich impression is pasted in a volume from Strasbourg that once formed part of the library of Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514), physician and humanist and printer in Nuremberg.
The Crucifixion appears to be unique among fifteenth-century prints in depicting a generic donor and providing space for his coat-of-arms. It comes at the end of a series of images that emphasize the Eucharistic significance of the Crucifixion; the woodcut and the Canon of the Mass reference the partaking of Christ’s sacrifice through the wine (clergy) and the wafer (congregation). The angels that collect Christ’s blood appear in two groups of woodcuts, beginning with what is possibly the largest surviving woodcut of the fifteenth century, an unfortunately damaged Christ on the Cross in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Of Netherlandish or Lower Rhenish origin, this Crucifixion may very well have derived from the circle of those who designed the first edition of the Apocalypse blockbook, around 1450. In any case, this highly dramatic rendering of the Crucifixion passed down through Upper and Lower Rhine workshops, appearing in an engraving of about 1475 by Martin Schongauer and also in four or five woodcut versions represented by impressions held in Berlin, Colmar, Linz, Mainz, New York, Oxford, and Washington. A most refined echo was used to introduce the Canon of the Mass in the Missale Coloniense (Cologne: Conrad Winter, 1481).
Other avenues of transmission of the Crucifixion with Angels are suggested by a now-lost woodcut that once adorned the back of the Imhoff family pew in the Nuremberg’s Lorenzkirche and by an anonymous Nuremberg painted panel, the Epitaph of Georg Rayl, dating from 1494/5, which includes the kneeling donor. The immediate prototype for the present woodcut was one used in several missals printed by Georg Stuchs. Its popularity is attested by the survival of other close variations. It seems possible that somewhere in this chain of forerunners the presence of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross was replaced by the donor present in the Cambridge woodcut.
Essay by Professor Richard Field