The ability to print and circulate images in multiple colors is a central aspect of modern civilization, important for the spread of knowledge as well as for aesthetic enjoyment. The original development of multicolor printing was carried out in the late fifteenth century by the German printer Erhard Ratdolt, one of the greatest innovators in the history of graphic art, who worked in Venice and Augsburg.
In 2007 the National Gallery was fortunate to acquire an example of one of the first two images printed in multiple colors, a diagram of the eclipse of the moon, in Ratdolt's publication of Sacrobosco's Sphaera Mundi (Venice, 1485). Now, through the Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, the Gallery has acquired one of Ratdolt's early multicolor prints of a figurative image, Christ on the Cross, with the Virgin and Saint John.
This woodcut is extremely rare. It was printed as part of a missal Ratdolt made in Augsburg in 1493 for the church in Brixen (today Bressanone, in northern Italy). It is one of only eight known impressions, the first to come to the United States, and one of only two on vellum. Whereas the traditional fifteenth-century woodcut was printed from one woodblock in black and then frequently colored by hand, here Ratdolt has created five separate woodblocks for the five colors and then printed them five times in succession to achieve his image. Such multiblock printing was expensive and used only in prestigious contexts. Although the technical problems were formidable, Ratdolt solved them with enthusiasm, even printing tiny details such as the green crown of thorns and the droplets of blood flowing from Christ's wounds. This would be a challenge even to today's hand printers. His early success—both technical and artistic—is truly remarkable.
This crucifixion image is traditional, normally placed in a missal before the canon of the mass. Here the figures of the Virgin and Saint John are rather flat, undoubtedly copied from earlier works. However, Christ is beautifully conceived, with his head in an unusual gesture, not lowered in pain or death but alertly gazing at his mother. His body is finely modeled, with his limbs and the cross itself carefully shaded.
Hans Burgkmair designed such color prints for Ratdolt as early as 1494, and the quality of this image of Christ, as well as the patterns of short parallel hatching used to model his body, indicate that Burgkmair may be the artist who created this work.