Where the pictures came from

Woodcut: Kepler’s Platonic solids model of the solar system from his Mysterium Cosmographicum, Tübingen 1596

Design by Kepler. Realisation: Artist unknown, Woodcutter unknown.

If you look at the science books that were printed in the 16th and 17th centuries you will notice that many of them have lavish and impressive illustrations a few of which are spread throughout this post.

Copper plate engraving: Hevelius Map of the Moon, Selenographia sive Lunae Descriptio, Danzig, 1647

Observations, drawing and engraving all by Hevelius

These illustrations served not only to illustrate the contents of the texts but also had an explanatory function supporting the claims made by the author. However one only needs to back to the beginning of the 15th century and such books and their illustrations would have been impossible. A series of discoveries and inventions made during the 15th century first made these scientific texts and their illustrations possible. In what follows I shall briefly sketch these developments roughly in the chronological order in which they were made.

Woodcut: Astrological pamphlet on the deluge prognosis from 1524

(If anybody can tell me where I stole borrowed this image from I will add more detail!)

The first development was the discovery of linear or central perspective at the beginning of the century. The discovery and development of the methods of linear perspective gave scientist the possibility to make accurate three dimensional representations of their objects of investigation; in fact with time it would lead to the discipline of technical drawing taught in schools and colleges all over the world. Historians are in agreement that the first person to demonstrate linear perspective was the Italian architect and artist Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) in Florence in 1413. Although we have descriptions of his demonstration Brunelleschi left no account of how he produced his perspective drawings his friend Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) published the first explanation of the process in 1435. Over the century other painters and mathematicians, in particular Pierro della Francesca (c. 1415 – 1492) in 1474, produced more detailed and complex procedures for the production of linear perspective.

Woodcut: Perspective study, Piero della Francesca, De perspectiva pigendi, c. 1480

This development reach a high point in the work Luca Pacioli (1446/7 – 1517)

Portrait of Luca Pacioli, Jacopo de’ Barbari, 1495 (attribution contested)

whose work on perspective illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) published in 1509 plagiarised della Francesca’s work and made it available to a much wider audience.

Woodcut: Rhombicuboctahedron, Luca Pacioli, De divina proportione, Venice, 1509

Realisation: Drawing Leonardo da Vinci. Woodcutter unknown.

The art of perspective was transferred to Northern Europe by Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) whose influence on the natural history books of the 16th century can be seen in the fact that the illustration were either done by students of Dürer or illustrators who copied his style.

Hand coloured woodcut: Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones, Straßburg, 3vols. 1530 – 1536

Realisation: Artists and woodcutter Hans Weiditz the Younger.

A second development in art that took place parallel to the discovery of linear perspective and which played a significant role in the evolution of scientific illustrations was the birth of naturalism. This was a development in art that abandoned the symbolic conventions of mediaeval art in favour of an attempt to present the world as it really is.

Woodcut: Cannabis sativa, Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, Basel, 1543

Realisation: Artists Heinrich Füllmauer and Albert Meyer. Woodcutter Veit Rudolph Speckle.

Although there is evidence of elements of the naturalist approach to be found as early as the 12th century this style in art first became dominant in the Flemish art of the 15th century, a notable exponent being Jan van Eyck who is characterised by his willingness to forgo classical idealization in favour of the faithful observation of nature. A combination of linear perspective and naturalism characterises the illustrations in the natural history books of the 16th century.

Woodcut: Water powered mine hoist, Georg Agricola, De re metallica, Basel, 1556

Realisation: Artist and woodcutter unknown.

Of course this developments in artistic representation would not have had the impact in scientific illustration that they did without the invention of printing. Printing with moving type was invented at least three times, the first time in the 11th century in China then again in the 13th century in Korea and finally in the 15th century in Europe. Strangely, given the fact that there was extensive knowledge transfer from China to Europe in the early modern period, the most notable examples being the magnet and gun powder, printing in Europe appears to have been an independent re-discovery rather than a transfer. Several people in Europe vie for the title of inventor of printing but what ever the merits might be of earlier experiments with type there is no doubt that printing first became known through the efforts of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden (1398 – 1468) better known as Johann Gutenburg whose Bible printed and published in 1455 started a technological revolution of immense dimensions. It has been estimated that 8 million books were printed in Europe in the first fifty years. A small number compared with a modern Harry Potter first edition first print run of 12 million but measured on the size of the literate population of the time a truly enormous number. Although he was probably not the first European to print using movable type Gutenburg was the first to combine moving type with the printing press, a modified wine press and an oil based printing ink, previous inks for calligraphy were water based and not suitable for printing. This combination of inventions first made the printing of books a viable proposition. Scientific printing entered the world at the very beginning in order to generate money Gutenburg printed a single sheet calendar the first of many produced in the Early Modern Period displaying the phases of the moon and other astronomical events for use in the then current astrological medicine. This is actually the reason why calendars and diaries, which developed out of the calendars, still today display the phases of the moon. This first step in scientific printing was soon followed by volumes on medicine, mathematics, cartography, astrology and astronomy.

Woodcut: Gutenburg style printing press 1568.

Realisation: Artist and woodcutter Jost Amman


The 16th century was the century of the large lavishly illustrated volumes on anatomy and the various elements of natural history, botany, zoology and mineralogy.

Woodcut: Anatomical drawing Andreas Vesalius, De humani corpris fabrica, Basel, 1543.

Realisation: Disputed, possibly studio of Titian.

Naturally printing with moving type does not make it possible to print illustrations and in many of the earliest volumes small illustration were added by hand after the pages had been printed, a slow and expensive process. The next step on the road to illustrated books was the wood block print or woodcut. It is a strange and until now unexplained quirk of history that although wood block printing in China was much older than moving type printing it did not appear in Europe until around the same time as the advent of book printing. In wood block printing the image to be printed is carved into the flat surface of a wood block that is then inked and pressed onto the paper or cloth that is to be printed. The first book with wood block printed illustrations appeared in 1461.


Woodcut: Mandrake root, Gart der Gesundheit, 1485.

Realisation: Artist and woodcutter unknown.

The first scientific book to incorporate wood book illustration was the first edition of Euclid’s Elements printed by Erhard Ratdolt (1442 – 1528) in 1482. He printed the geometrical diagrams in the margins of the pages. It was also the first book to be printed with two different colours, red and black, on the same page.

Woodcut: Explanation of a lunar eclipse, Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Sphaericum opusculum, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, Venice, 1485.

Realisation: Artist and woodcutter unknown.

To avoid the difficult problem of integrating type face and wood blocks on the same page the illustrations were often printed on separate fold out sheets that were glued into the back of the finished book. This practice continued to be quite common for science books well into the 17th century. Michael Wolgemut (1434 – 1519) and his apprentice Albrecht Dürer who provided the illustration for the Nuremberg Chronicles, the first printed encyclopedia, raised the quality of the woodcuts used to print illustration to the highest possible level and although the woodcut would remain the most used form of printed book illustration throughout the 16th century it suffered from limitations.

Hand coloured woodcut: The Forth Day, Hartmut Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle, Nuremberg, 1493.

Realisation: Studio of Michael  Wolgemut

The principal limitation was the physical limit set on the fineness of line producible in wood. This problem was solved by another method of printing also developed in the 15th century the engraved copper printing plates. Here the image is cut, or engraved, into a flat copper plate, which is the inked and pressed onto the paper; this method of printing was invented by goldsmiths. In the High Middle Ages the goldsmiths produced decorative or ornamental suits of armour for the aristocracy in which patterns were engraved into the polished surfaces of the metal. In order to ensure the symmetry of their designs the goldsmiths would engrave one side of a breast plate, for example, and then fill the groves with coloured powder or liquid and press a cloth or sheet of paper onto the surface producing a print of the design that was then used to duplicate the design on the other side of the breast plate. It is not known who first thought of using this method to produce pictorial prints but it is no coincidence that the man who raised it to a fine art at the beginning of the 16th century was Albrecht Dürer who had trained under his father as a goldsmith.

Engraving: The most well known of all mathematically themed prints Albrcht Dürer’s Melencholia I, Nuremberg 1514.

Realisation: Drawing, engraving, printing Albrecht Dürer

Being more expensive copper plate printing was not used as extensively as woodcuts but when particularly fine or detailed illustrations were needed then it found its place in early printed scientific illustration.

Engraving: Anatomical drawing, Albrecht von Haller, Icones anatomicae, 1756

Realisation, C.J. Rollinus.

Engraving would eventually become replaced by etching a process also invented by goldsmiths to decorate armour and which was first used to make printing plates by Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470 – 1536) from Augsburg.

Etching: Daniel Hopfer, The Five Country Knaves, Early 16th century.

In etching the copper printing plate is covered with a sheet of wax in which the illustrator draws his picture with some form of stylus exposing the surface of the metal where he wants lines to appear. The metal is then immersed in an acid bath where the acid eats into the exposed metal leaving lines cut into the surface. The plate is the washed and the rest of the wax is removed. This process is simpler than engraving as the illustrator can draw in wax much more easily than actually cutting the picture into the printing plate with engraving tools. Etching didn’t completely replace woodcuts or engraving until the 18th century as in earlier times the impurity of the acids used and caused problems in the etching process.

Woodcut? Drawing of a louse, Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London 1665

Realisation: Drawing Robert Hooke. Engraver unknown.


So as we have seen in order to produce the illustrated science books that played a not insignificant role in the so-called scientific revolution the 15th century first had to call forth linear perspective and naturalism in art, the invention of moving type and the printing press as well as the printing methods of woodcuts, engraving and etching all of which seem somehow archaic just 600 years later in this age of computer printing.

Woodcut: Europe as a Queen, Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia, 1570

Realisation: Münster employed many artists and woodcutters and I don’t know who was responsible for this illustration.


Postscript: By the illustrations ‘unknown’ means unknown to me and if any reader can add more information I would be grateful. However it should be noted that many early printer publishers did not credit the artists, woodcutters and engravers who supplied the illustrations for their books. Therefore both Leonhard Fuchs and Otto Brunfels are to be praised for the full credit that they gave to their illustrators in their very important and influential herbals.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of science

18 responses to “Where the pictures came from

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  3. With a title like “Where the pictures come from” I would have been a lot more impressed if you had taken the time to cite and attribute them where possible.

    Artists and illustrators deserve credit, whether alive or dead. They are enhancing your post and are central to your subject here.

    It’s a fascinating subject you’re covering.

    • You are of course completely right. I put this together very, very quickly to beat the dealine for the Visuals and Representations special edition of Giants’ Shoulders. I had intended to take more time but I got unexpectedly much work in the last ten days and found myself writing against the clock yesterday evening. As I write it’s the only free half hour that I have today, this evening I will collapse in a little heap in the corner. This is why I wrote that I would add captions to the pictures at the weekend. In the post itself I have, I think, emphasised the inventors, designers and artists who developed the methods that I sketch and not the people who untilised them in their books.

      I apologises for my tardyness to all artists, illustrators, designers etc who I might have offended.

      • Thanks for your response ThonyC. and please forgive me for being peevish. It is a good post.

        I am often baffled why many science bloggers (and not just science bloggers) will cite historical and scientific references, while enhancing their posts with uncited, cool visuals.

        I am still struggling to find a way to raise awareness about it, other than knee-jerk reactions like this one in comments sections.

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  11. Benjamin

    The printing press woodcutting is from artist and woodcutter Jost Amman.

    The Micrographia louse is actually a copper engraving (1665), not a woodcut.

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