Xylography in Asian Wood Engravings and Medieval Block Books

The definition of xylography means the oldest known form of woodcut and engraving in wood, invented in China in the first century AD. Although it originated in China, “the practice of woodcut has spread across the world from Europe to other parts of Asia, and to Latin America. [In woodcut technique], the block is cut along the wood grain, [whereas in the case of wood engraving], the block is cut in the [end-grain].” (“Woodcut” 2021).

A single-sheet of woodcut of the famous Four Horsemen c. 1496–1498 by Albrecht Dürer, depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Albrecht Dürer – National Gallery of Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The technique of “[woodcut] is a relief printing […] in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. […] The surface is covered with ink, [also in multiple colours], by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas” (“Woodcut” 2021).

The art of carving the woodcut is generally referred to as xylography. Although the latter term is rarely used in Europe for woodcut single images, it is mostly related to the so-called block books, “which are small books containing text and images in the same block” (“Woodcut” 2021). Such block books are also called xylographica; they were uniquely printed in Europe and became popular in the second half of the fifteenth century. They are short books of up to fifty leaves and of nearly always religious content. At the same time, a single-sheet of woodcut is rather called simply a woodcut, which is presented as a single image or print, as opposed to a book illustration included in  xylographica.

Featured image: Fragment of the woodcut page from the Apocalypse. It is a block book printed in Europe between 1450 & 1500. The image come from a late fifteenth century compilation blockbook [Cod Pal. Germ 34] of which the ‘Apokalypse’ (4th ed.) forms one section. The printed text is in Latin but handwritten German translation sheets were inserted between the blockbook pages. The book is hosted by the University of Heidelberg. Public domain. Image modified. Photo and caption source: “Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


Bernard T. (2013). “Xylography. Art Terms — X”Trylit”. In: Teresa Bernard Oil Paintings. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvYwvq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/34rVLoq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3i1FAX3>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

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