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Book of the Month

April 2005

Blockbook Apocalypse

Netherlands: 1430s-1440s
Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.3

This month's choice is a mid fifteenth century copy of the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament. An outstanding example of a blockbook, it was produced in the Netherlands and consists of 42 plates of hand coloured illustrations accompanied by explanatory text in Latin. This work has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of the medieval woodcutter's art.

Detail from plate 12: Chapter 9, verses 17-20
horses with heads like lions and tails like serpents breathing fire and brimstone to kill the third part of men

The Apocalypse is probably the most controversial book of the Bible. The only prophetic book of the New Testament, it reveals the God given visions of John. Although its exact date of composition is not known, most scholars agree that is was written in around 95 AD, at a time when apocalyptic writing flourished.


Its basic disclosure is ultimately one of redemption: God will intervene at some cataclysmic point in human history (the day of reckoning), prevailing over wickedness and destroying all evil. Its fundamental concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil has fascinated the imagination of generations of readers; much of its vivid imagery and bizarre symbolism - such as the notion of the seven seals and the number of the beast - has entered popular public consciousness.

Complex, confusing, and difficult to understand, not surprisingly it has been subject to widely differing interpretations. It can be seen from the viewpoint of its historical setting; others interpret it as a prediction of the future, suggesting that events such as the reformation and the French Revolution have been forecast by it; another reading of it is as an allegorical or mystical poem on theology. Luther is said to have commented that the work  'either finds a man mad or leaves him mad'.

Detail from plate 15: chapter 13, verses 1-2
leopard-like beast with seven heads and feet like a bear, given power and authority by the dragon

Plates 1 and 2: scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist
John preaches to the heathen, baptises Drusiana while a pagan army attempt to demolish the church, is complained of to the Proconsul of Ephesus, and is sent to Rome to go before the Emperor Domitian

At the beginning of the vision, the author clearly identifies himself as 'John', writing authoritatively to the seven Churches in Asia. It is a matter of debate who this writer was. Although it has been variously suggested that he was John the Apostle or John the Baptist, most scholars now agree to attribute the work to an otherwise unknown prophet called John.

This version begins and ends with scenes from the apocryphal life of 'Saint John', commonly known from popular retellings of saints' lives such as the Legenda Aurea. Such events as his baptism of a converted woman called Drusiana and his miraculous ability to withstand being plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil are displayed in the pages reproduced here. 

Plate 3: scenes from the life of Saint John
John is brought before Domitian, who orders that he be plunged into a vat of boiling oil

Plate 42: scenes from the life of Saint John
John is unharmed by poison administered by Domitian, and lies in his grave having predicted his own death

The pages in blockbooks - usually incorporating both image and a condensed text - are printed entirely from woodcut blocks cut in relief. This xylographic technique for producing books flourished in mid fifteenth century Europe, at the same time that experiments in printing with moveable type began; it seems that the two technologies co-existed for a number of decades. The beginnings of the blockbook genre may be found in an earlier trend for printing single sheets of devotional religious images, sometimes accompanied by brief captions below the pictures. Blockbook plates, however, were not printed with a press but by laying a sheet of paper over an inked block and rubbing the back of the sheet to transfer the ink; the verso of each page would usually be left blank as the process resulted in too much indentation for satisfactory double sided impressions. Books would typically be bound so that alternate openings would reveal a pair of printed pages, to be followed by a pair of blank versos (which would sometimes be glued closed). In comparison with manuscript copies of books, this was a relatively cheap way of reproducing multiple copies of texts, the major cost being paper - an expensive commodity at the time.

Detail from plate 18: chapter 12, verses 1-5
a seven headed dragon stands before a woman wearing a crown of twelve stars, clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet,  ready to devour her child who is safely caught by God

In all, over thirty different blockbook editions survive. The Netherlands was the chief centre for their production in the fifteenth century; while some were also made in Germany, many of these were actually based on Netherlandish models. As well as the Apocalypse, works such as the Biblia Pauperum, the Ars Moriendi, and the Speculum Humanae Salvationis were produced by this method. The Apocalypse, however, is generally thought to be one of the earliest examples of the genre, being first printed in Haarlem or Utrecht in about 1430.

Detail from plate 18: chapter 12, verses 7-8
the war in heaven: Michael and his angels fighting the seven headed dragon

The imagery and illustrative arrangement was closely derived from manuscript copies of the work; these were produced prolifically in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially in England and northern France. The cycles of half page illustrations created at this time remained influential for centuries, being reproduced in art forms such as tapestries and stained glass as well as in manuscripts. In the blockbook versions, the usual pattern was for two illustrations to be cut per plate, resulting in four scenes per opening. A small number of full page scenes were also included. In this example, the sequence of illustrations corresponds roughly with the narrative flow of the Book of Revelation, although some of the plates seem to have been ordered somewhat arbitrarily, a confusion which possibly stems from the arrangement of the original (unidentified) manuscript upon which the blockbook was based. 

Six different blockbook editions of the Apocalypse survive. Schreiber has identified these as belonging to two distinct closely related groupings, consisting of three editions each. Our book is a copy of the second edition from the first Netherlandish grouping. Besides having an extra two plates, it uses the same plates as the first edition, differing only in that page 'signatures' have been added to the pictures. In the plate reproduced to the right, for example, the inserted symbol resembling a stunted 'p' with a hook to the left can be clearly seen in the centre of the image, to the right of the second tree. In the edition following, the illustrations are again the same, but the text differs in having its abbreviations lengthened. This was surely an improvement as the difficulty of reading the cut gothic text is accentuated in its contracted form. The further three editions differ significantly from the preceding group and were probably produced in Germany. 

Few blockbook copies survive completely intact and our volume is no exception. Boasting only 42 plates out of a possible 48, it lacks plates 8-11, 20-22 and 24 according to Schreiber's reckoning.

Plate 35: chapter 14, verses 6-8
an angel preaching the Gospel, and an angel declaiming the fall of Babylon

Plate 25: chapter 16, verses 17-21
the seventh angel pouring out his vial, thunder, lightning and a great earthquake, and the division of Babylon

Plate 29: chapter 20, verses 4-9
the resurrection of the beheaded faithful and Satan being devoured by the fire of God as he attacks the beloved city

Plate 38: chapter 20, verses 10-15
the devil in the lake of fire and brimstone, and the lake of fire into which death and hell were cast


There is some debate regarding the use of blockbooks by their original owners and readers. It is usual to say that copies of the blockbook Biblia Pauperum (or Bible for the Poor) were used by poor clerics and friars in preaching, as their woodcut pictures would be meaningful to the semi-illiterate and an effective way of dramatising sermons. If this is the case, then it is highly likely that the Apocalypse was used as an instructional tool in the same way. Another suggestion is that these books were used by individuals for private meditation, in much the same way that emblem books came to be used by readers in the Renaissance.


Appreciation of blockbooks today tends to focus on their arresting images, and the Apocalypse is regarded as amongst the highest artistic achievements of blockbook production. Probably following a variety of sources and models, the strength of the line could only be achieved by considerable skill in cutting. As Hind has commented, 'the very simplicity of these outline cuts give them much of their noble and expressive character'. The pictures here have here been enhanced by the addition of bold, watercolour washes.

Detail from plate 38: chapter 20, verse 10

Notes in preliminary leaves

Our copy of the Apocalypse comes from the eighteenth century library of William Hunter. There are several pages of notes pasted or tipped in to its preliminary leaves. One note is by Hunter himself and demonstrates his interest in bibliography. He lists works of reference which discuss blockbooks and this copy in particular, mentioning Samuel Palmer's The general history of printing and Gerard Meerman's Origines typographicae. Copies of both these books are also to be found in his library. He then goes on to discuss the contemporary theory that printing had its origins in card stamping.

The other notes include a description of a blockbook Apocalypse taken from Thomas Hartwell Horne's An introduction to the study of bibliography and several pages of background information on the work and transcriptions from it compiled by Professor John Young, Keeper of the Hunterian Museum and Library from 1866-1902. Such close study intimates the interest this book has generated in successive readers for the past five hundred years. 

This book is on display in the Special Collections foyer (level 12 of Glasgow University Library), together with a fifteenth century manuscript copy of the Apocalypse, until early June 2005.

Another blockbook:
Biblia Pauperum
. Blockbook Bible, Netherlands: c.1450 Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.4

Medieval manuscripts of the Apocalypse:
incomplete copy in fourteenth century Wycliffe New Testament MS Hunter 191 (T.8.23); copy in fifteenth century French/Flemish manuscript (also including Acts of the Apostles, etc): MS Hunter 348 (U.8.16); French copy, c. 1480s, illustrated by 48 half page miniatures: MS Hunter 398 (V.2.18).

Edited by David L. Barr Reading the book of Revelation: a resource for students Atlanta: 2003 Level 10 Main Lib Theology FV827 BAR5; Arthur M. Hind An introduction to a history of woodcut, with a detailed survey of work done in the fifteenth century London: 1935  Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts E1045 HIN (vol. 1); M. R. James The Apocalypse in art London: 1931 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B160 1931-J; Robert H. Mounce The book of Revelation London: 1978 Level 10 Main Lib Theology FV827 MOU; Tobin Nellhaus 'Mementoes of things to come: orality, literacy, and typology in the Biblia pauperum' in ed. Sandra Hindman Printing the written word: the social history of books, circa 1450-1520 Ithaca, N.Y/London: 1991 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B170 1991-P; W.L. Schreiber Manuel de l'amateur de la gravure sur bois et sur metal au XVe siecle Berlin:1891-1911 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts qE1040 SCHRE (Vol. 4, pp. 160-216); Nigel Thorp The glory of the page: medieval & renaissance illuminated manuscripts from Glasgow University Library London: 1987 Sp Coll Reference and Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B162 1987-U; Adrian Wilson & Joyce Lancaster Wilson A medieval mirror: Speculum humanae salvationis, 1324-1500 Berkeley: 1985 Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f52



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Julie Gardham April 2005