An anthropomorphic wolf carrying bags of money, sporting fish hooks for fingers and legs reminiscent of thick screws is perhaps one of the most bizarre woodcuts to emerge in the 17th century. A satirical image reflecting on monopolies of goods like wine and tobacco, it is certainly one that makes you pause and stare when flipping through Graven Images, a delightful survey of centuries-old woodcuts recently published by the British Library. The curious work from 1641 is reprinted in the 176-page book alongside many other examples of the graphic art form drawn from the Library’s collections — but beyond their shared medium, these were brought together in this new tome precisely because of their individual strangeness.
Its title alone offers a hint of the unconventional imagery within, from the crude to the whimsical: the phrase “graven images” nods to the second of the Ten Commandments that prohibits the worship of idols or representations of God. But, as editor Jon Crabb notes in his introduction, woodcut images were also first adopted by Catholics to publish devotional images. Of course, secular pictures eventually filled the pages of pamphlets like the photographs of today’s newspapers, depicting all kinds of subjects, from portraits of royalty to scenes of death.
“Aside from political motivations, broadsides and pamphlets — decorated with a familiar set of woodcuts — were the easiest way to illustrate our basic fears and desires,” as Crabb writes. “They gave voice to perennial concerns regarding sex, death and gossip, subjects just as engrossing in the sixteenth century as they are now.”
Graven Images highlights the oddities of the woodcut world, making for a fun, art historically grounded addition to a stack of coffee table books — it’s informative, but its emphasis is squarely on its images. Crabb makes plain from the start that this isn’t an academic study of early printed books; rather, it’s intended as an entertaining visual primer of some fantastic and sometimes downright creepy visions that have emerged from the human mind. He’s divided the book into six chapters based on subject: monsters and creatures (from Blemmyes to cryptids); satire (poking fun at religion, the economy, members of royalty); damnable practices (namely, witchcraft); drinking and drunkenness; murder and misfortune; and finally, “wanton women and gallants” — which features woodcuts of cross-dressing figures and brazen ladies who say things like, “Come out you bitch, I’ll maul you.”
Although relatively light on text, the book features short descriptions by Crabb of particularly notable images and notes on visual trends to shed some light on why some of these woodcuts were made. Images of men barfing or drunkards getting visits from the devil, for instance, served to warn readers of the consequences of dousing oneself in alcohol. The literally sobering views of executions, meanwhile, were once part of collected memorabilia: they were printed in broadsides that people liked to purchase as a souvenir after witnessing a beheading.
One pamphlet showing the execution of King Charles I was apparently particularly successful, and included an illustration of a grinning executioner standing over the monarch, already in two pieces. While the images of hob-goblins and scaly chimeras in Graven Images are playful reminders of how we once perceived our world, other early depictions are more thought-provoking, revealing societal values buried beneath the layers of time that are less fun to remember, but no less important.
Graven Images is available through the British Library.