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'A Heavenly Craft'

The heavenly crafts in this case are the beautiful woodcut-illustrated books in the new Library exhibition "A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books." This exhibition is on view in the Library's Jefferson Building through July 9, 2005. You can see a preview of 'A Heavenly Craft' that features many of the books on display.

[detail from] Carm rithmic de passie Do Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, La Historia general de las Indias

The exhibition of 84 rare books from is from the Library's renowned Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. The books were formerly owned by British collector C.W. Dyson Perrins (1864-1958), heir to the Lea and Perrins fortune, who sold them at auction in 1946 and 1947. Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), retired chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and a noted philanthropist and collector, purchased 84 titles at the sale and was its most important buyer. The books were deeded to the Library of Congress in 1943 as part of Rosenwald's larger gift of illustrated books, a collection considered to be one of the most important private libraries formed in the 20th century.

In the early 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg mastered the art of printing with movable type. This method of printing can be credited not only for a revolution in the production of books, but also for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts.

During the same period, the woodcut attained a significant role in the illustration and decoration of books. Carving an image into a plank or block of wood, then impressing the image on paper or vellum, was a process commonly used in Europe early in the 15th century. A decade after Gutenberg 's invention, printers found that they could combine woodcut blocks with metal type, enabling them to print both image and text simultaneously. The use of woodcuts in printed books made it possible for the first time to print identical copies of illustrated books, resulting in a powerful explosion of visual information, which greatly contributed to the standardization of knowledge throughout Europe.

The exhibition explores how the artistic influences of Renaissance painters, illuminators and sculptors transformed the woodcut into a medium of fine art. Many of the books in the display are on religious subjects and contain images that reflect the dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western Europe.

Several Library exhibitions have featured woodcuts. For example, "American Treasures" has a 1535 woodcut from Historia by Gonzalo Oviedo, who sailed in 1514 on the first of his many journeys to America.

Also in "American Treasures" is A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, a touchstone of 18th century American book illustration. This "curious" children's Bible contains nearly 500 woodcuts made by American artists. The most ambitious woodcut book produced in America up to that time (1788), it is one of the 65 children's book titles produced by the pioneer publisher of children's literature and preeminent early American printer Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831).

More recent woodcuts could be found in "Creative Space: Fifty Years of Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop." Red Inside is from 1972 and Woodscape is from 1984. Master printmaker Robert Blackburn (1920-2003), who grew up in Harlem, changed the course of American art through his graphic work and the Printmaking Workshop, which he founded in New York City in 1948. His pioneering contributions to the technical and aesthetic development of abstract color lithography is as legendary as his generosity in encouraging and training thousands of diverse artists to experiment in the graphic medium.

You can access more woodcuts by typing "woodcut" in the search box in the upper-right corner of the Exhibitions page. This page will also open doors to more than 50 diverse and fascinating other exhibitions at the Library.

A. Joannes Houden, [detail from] Carm rithmic de passie Do, [1516]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction information: Contact: // 1550.

B. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, La Historia general de las Indias, [N.P]: 1535. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction information: Contact: //

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