Five Wounds of Christ
Peter de Wale
hand-painted woodcut on paper
25 x 16.7 cm
credit: Volker-H. Schneider / Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource


This pre-1500 German woodcut is not significant for what it is, but for what it signals.

The subject matter of this woodcut—the Five Wounds of Jesus—is a common one. There are tens, if not hundreds, of pre-1500 woodcuts with the elements pictured in this one: the pierced hands and feet, the cross with three nails driven in to its arms and base, the crown of thorns looped around the left arm of the cross, the heart of Jesus in the center, and the Christ Child imposed on the heart holding a whip (Flagellum) and sheath of wheat (mock sceptre).

Many of these woodcuts could be placed one on top the other and the arrangement of the elements would line up almost exactly. It is as if each printmaker, almost all of whom worked anonymously, was following the same template for rendering the Five Wounds of Jesus.

This woodcut is unusual then, not for its visual elements nor their arrangement, but for the fact that it is signed. And what this signals Jacob Burckhardt suggests in his classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

In the Middle Age…human consciousness…lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil…woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation—only through some general category. [With the coming of the Renaissance] The subjective side asserted itself…man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such.

By carving his name into the wood block used to print this image, Peter de Wale stepped forward out of a collective of anonymous “printmakers” and asserted his unique artistic identity.

The Renaissance brought us consciousness of our individuality and all the achievements that this sense of entitlement has wrought. It is a small step from Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) dropping weights off the tower at Pisa to Neil Armstrong (1930– ) walking on Earth’s moon.

We can’t go back to the good old days of the Middle Ages. It is, however, worthwhile considering what was gained and what was lost when humankind awakened from its strangely hued dream of a common “faith, illusion, and childish prepossession.”

One of modern time’s artistic antennas, Bob Dylan (1941– ), who if he had lived pre-1500 might have been an anonymous Medieval troubadour, or perhaps one of the first identified by name composer of idiosyncratic ballads, contends in Summer Days, "you can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘you can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can." (Or was that Jay Gatsby?)

And who was Peter de Wale? He lived in Antwerp where he was active in religious guilds; for reasons unknown he was imprisoned briefly in 1531; and is credited with two other woodcuts: a map of the world and a skeleton, both dated to 1530, neither of which is signed.


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