Holbeins woodcuts of the Old Testament,
like Botticellis illustrations for the Divine Comedy (1481),
represent one of the all-too-rare conjunctions of a great draftsman
with a great work of literature. For it is anecdotally, as literature,
almost as mythology, that the artist approached the Old Testament. Hans
Holbein (1497-1543) designed his series of ninety-four illustrations
at roughly the same time as his familiar suite of forty-one engravings
of The Dance of Death, between 1525 and 1530, in Basel.
The 1520s were a period of violent religious controversy in Switzerland,
and Holbeins timeless images of the Old Testament contrast strikingly
with the prevailing sectarian war of words over the other, later Testament.
In Catholic Lyon at least, remote from the iconoclastic Lutheranism
of Basel, the drawings were able to transcend doctrinal disputes. There
they were published, between 1538 and 1549, in various editions, with
Latin, French, Spanish, and English texts, to say nothing of copies
of the woodcuts in complete editions of the Bible. But the images are
best seen in the little Lyon editions, with their ample margins and
brief, deferential text, where Holbeins extraordinary economy
of line and command of perspective can be admired without distraction.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
7 5/8 x 5 1/2 inches (194 x 140 mm)
The Book As Boomerang
If any ancient collectors left their marks in the copy of Holbein’s Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti (Images from the Old Testament) photographed for Octavo’s Edition, all trace disappeared in the rebinding of the book in the nineteenth century by the firm of Charles Hering, one of London’s finest bookbinders. From that point on, this Icones changed hands between some of the most famous names in fine printing and book arts. The earliest recorded owner of the book in its new binding is Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, noted secretary to William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Cockerell in turn gave it to Emery Walker, typographer and printer at Kelmscott and co-founder of the Doves Press with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. When Walker died in 1933, the Icones returned to Cockerell, who passed it on later that year to another old friend, C.H. St. John Hornby, proprietor of the Ashendene Press. Hornby was Cockerell’s contemporary but did not outlive him, so the book went back to Cockerell. How exactly it came into the hands of its next owner is somewhat of a mystery, but by 1964 the book belonged to the typographer and historian of book design, Ruari McLean. Bridwell Library then bought the book in 1990 from the Scottish bookseller Kulgin Duval.