Early Printing

by Jutta Buck

with Cynthia Rice

A new chapter in the history of botanical art began first with woodblock printing in which woodcuts were made of text and illustrations hand carved on separate blocks of wood, and usually printed in black and white. Then the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, allowed the text to be set up next to the woodcut illustrations and passed through the press at the same time. Botanical books thus became more widely available than in the preceding manuscript form.

Illustrations of plants in early printed herbals (known as incunabula, or the first printed books) still relied mostly on examples from manuscripts of the past. The first published book to be illustrated with two botanical woodcuts, entitled Puch der Natur by Konrad von Megenburg, was printed by Hans Baemler at Augsburg in 1475. Further examples include three illustrated incunabula herbals printed in Mainz. The Latin Herbarius, produced by Peter Schoeffer in 1484, is a small book with texts taken from various other herbals, illustrated with bold and charming figures showing native German garden plants. In the following year, Schoeffer published Der Gart der Gesundheit (The Garden of Health) an important work, as not only were Latin and Greek replaced for the first time with the native German, but also with illustrations showing a keen observation of nature and faithful drawings after live plants.


        Asparagus from Hortus Sanitatis, Jacob Meydenbach, Mainz 1491, woodcut

In 1491, Jakob Meydenbach produced Ortus Sanitatis, with drawings of plants, fish, birds, animals and minerals. Most of the plant illustrations in the Ortus were taken from Der Gart but the new figures, including those of native plants, were fairly naturalistic, while the remaining illustrations are curious flights of fancy.


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  • Columbine from Gart der Gesundheit, Peter Schoeffer, Mainz 1485, woodcut
  • White Lily from Gart der Gesundheit, Peter Schoeffer, Mainz, 1485, woodcut (Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.)