20/05/2014 09:28 BST | Updated 19/07/2014 06:59 BST

Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts


London has some big art shows open right now. The Royal Academy's exhibition on the development of woodcuts during the Renaissance period may not be a blockbuster to rival Matisse and Veronese but this is a surprisingly enjoyable as well as informative exhibition on the genesis and development of this technique.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were a printing technique that originated in about 1500. Created by German inventors Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Burgkmair the Elder, these woodcuts were the first colour prints that made dramatic use of light and shadow - chiaroscuro - to suggest form, volume and depth.

You'd expect woodcuts to be quite dry, with the images rigid and lacking in artistic expression but not at all. The technical expertise in the 150 prints the RA has brought together is such that there is great detail in these prints with bodies outlined in curving sculpting lines, and cross-hatchings used for shadow.

The woodblocks were also cut to bring out detail as fine and specific as feathers on a cherub's wing, blades of grass and even the bark of Jesus' cross, as in Wechtlin's Christ on the Cross (1510-1512).

These woodcuts were also developed so that attributes of the paper being used for the print would be taken into account with paper colour and material considered to accentuate elements of the image, such as highlighting parts of the landscape or emphasising muscles to the human form.


Characteristically for the Renaissance period, the subject matter of these woodcuts is all biblical stories and mythology.

And the influence of the major Renaissance artists can also be seen in the strong muscular physiques, reminiscent of Michelangelo, in compositions such as Goltzius' Hercules killing Cacus (1588) and Andrea Andreani's Rape of a Sabine Woman (1584).

More direct representations of Renaissance artists' works include Ugo da Carpi's woodcut The Death of Ananias (1518), which is a drawing based on one of Raphael's designs for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.

With an interesting foreshadow to the work of many contemporary works, artists took advantage of this new mass reproduction technique to reprint the same image in a variety of colourways. This has a great effect when the different versions are brought together such as the three versions of Ugo da Carpi's Diogenes (1527) and three versions of Antonio da Trento's Narcissus (1527-30).

Artists were also not limited by scale. Though many of the images on display are from a single woodcut block, there are a few where a number of blocks were used.

Amongst the largest are Andreani's The Lamentation of Christ (1593) which was printed from four sets of four blocks across 13 sheets of paper, and Andreani's The Sacrifice of Isaac (1586) - a single image created by five sets of four blocks.


This exhibition may lack the box office draw of Matisse or Veronese but for those interested in art history and the creative process, it's well worth it.

Also, if you're thinking of going but a bit tentative on the subject matter, consider going along on the evening of Friday June 6th. Professor Mary Beard (in her role as the RA's Professor of Ancient Literature) is giving an evening talk exploring some of the classical themes from the exhibition from the rape of the Sabines to the tragic Narcissus (advance booking recommended).

Royal Academy of Arts, London to June 8, 2014

General Admission: £10 (concessions available)

Professor Mary Beard Evening Event Admission: £16 (concessions available) includes exhibition entry.

Image credits, with kind permission from the Royal Academy of Arts:

1. Ugo da Carpi, Diogenes, early sixteenth century, Chiaroscuro woodcut; four blocks (green and blue); first state 47.8 x 34.3 cm, Private Collection, Photo Albertina, Vienna

2. Andrea Andreani, after Giambologna Rape of a Sabine Woman, 1584 Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from four blocks, the tone blocks in brown, 44.7 x 20.9 cm Collection Georg Baselitz Photo Albertina, Vienna

3. Hendrick Goltzius Hercules Killing Cacus, 1588 Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from three blocks, the tone blocks in yellow and green, 41.1 x 33.3 cm Collection Georg Baselitz Photo Albertina, Vienna