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My first encounter with this hand-coloured woodcut print of the Virgin Nursing the Christ Child left an indelible impression on me. The image is dominated by the Virgin and Child accompanied by saints with a scene of the Annunciation above, a common devotional format of the time. While the blue and red pigments are still vibrant, traces of yellow are barely visible on St Catharine’s dress (the saint holding a spiked wheel, a symbol of her martyrdom).

During my research, I read a tantalising account about the discovery of fifteenth-century woodcuts pasted to a doorway of a house in Bassano (near Venice). These prints were painstakingly removed from the walls of the building as it was about to be demolished in the late nineteenth century. Although the edges are worn and pieces are missing, this large-scale woodcut is the best preserved of the group. During a visit to see it, I was struck by visible evidence of its long life.

Images printed on paper, many devotional in nature, once populated homes of the Renaissance Italians like posters and photographs today. Prints were often attached to walls with red wax, a substance also used to seal letters, which might be considered the early modern predecessor to blue-tac! The worn edges and faded colours are reminders that it was in a home for over 500 years. I imagine the home’s inhabitants greeting the holy figures when passing through the doorway, and various generations of the family gathering before the images to say their daily prayers.

Katherine Tycz,
Phd candidate, Domestic Devotions Project

Virgin enthroned suckling the infant Christ, surrounded by angels. Italy, found in Bassano, c.1450, woodcut on paper with stencil colouring, 53.6 x 41.2 cm. London, British Museum, 1895,0122.1187. © The Trustees of the British Museum.