Although many artists used engravings, etchings, and woodcuts to create original artworks, prints were first generally used to reproduce other works of art. Before photography was invented, paintings, frescoes, and sculptures were often known through prints. A fresco in Rome would be more widely known in Florence, Antwerp, or Vienna through its engraved reproduction, which existed in multiple copies. Printed on paper, engravings and etchings were more portable and easily handled, circulating more freely through space. Prints also allowed for the dissemination of visual form, knowledge, and stories—often biblical or mythological—and made singular works of art accessible to broader audiences.
Albrecht Dürer is considered one of the printmakers to have advanced the technique of woodcut printing during the Renaissance era. It was used throughout Europe during the later medieval period for handwritten books, religious badges, or other small, often simple illustrations. Dürer was widely praised for his expressive use of line, level of detail, and realism of figures, fabrics, and settings. The theme of the Christian apocalypse,which follows the final part of the New Testament called the Book of Revelation, was a popular subject for visual representation since the Middle Ages. Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse adds an increased drama and emotional intensity to this text. Heavy horizontal lines in the background, created by carving deep into the wooden block, sharply contrast the dynamic movements created by the galloping horses and the figures underfoot. Dürer’s portfolios of prints, such as the series Life of the Virgin, were also widely disseminated and copied, making his style and compositions highly influential across Northern Europe and Italy.
Aegidius Sadeler’s engraving of the Virgin and Child demonstrates this medium’s particular capacity to circulate visual motifs, iconography, and ideas. Sadeler very likely created this print while serving in Prague as a court engraver for Rudolf II, Duke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolf II owned the 1503 painting on copper by Albrecht Dürer on which this print was based and frequently instructed engravers or draughtsmen of his court to create copies. While the features of the Virgin and Child are characteristic of Dürer’s style, Sadeler incorporated many new elements, such as the animals in the foreground and the fantastical skyscape in the upper register.
Adam Elsheimer (German, 1578‒1610), Ceres in the House of Hecuba, ca. 1605, oil on copper, Museo del Prado
Federico Barocci (Italian, 1528‒1612), The Madonna of the Cherries, oil on canvas, c. 1573, Vatican Museums
This engraving is a copy of Italian Renaissance artist Federico Barocci’s painting The Madonna of the Cherries (ca. 1573) in the Vatican Museums in Rome. The print demonstrates the potential that prints held to circulate ideas and art forms from other media. Cornelis Cort was a Netherlandish printmaker who lived in Rome after 1570 and reproduced many religious images by Italian painters. In a small inscription atop a rock, Cort named Barocci as the “inventor” of the image. This scene is enclosed in a frame with a Latin inscription addressing the Virgin and a dedication by the publisher, Lorenzo Vaccari, to the prominent Cardinal, Jacapo Savelli.