Hans Wechtlin, Skull Within an Ornamental Frame, a woodcut

Germany, about AD 1510-11

A chiaroscuro colour woodcut printed from two blocks

This great skull seems to thrust itself off the page into our space. Hans Wechtlin (about 1480- after 1526) achieved this effect by employing three skilful devices. The Renaissance niche is an architectural feature that might be seen either as a window or, as in this case, a tomb. By completely filling this space, the skull looks gigantic. It seems to stretch towards us fitting neatly inside the frame, casting shadows on the floor, while the jaw projects forward, over the base. Finally, Wechtlin has employed the new technique of chiaroscuro woodcut to suggest strong highlights and shadows, which add a three dimensional quality to this image.

Wechtlin has analysed his design into lights and darks, drawing the darks in black line onto a woodblock. It is thought that he then pressed a print of these blacks, before the ink had dried, onto another block from which he cut away the whites. The registration of the two blocks could thus be carefully preserved. Hans Burgkmair and the printer Jost de Negker had developed the chiaroscuro technique in Augsburg shortly before this print was produced.

The inscription on the base may be translated, 'the glory of worldly happiness'. This woodcut is similar to a memento mori, a grim reminder of death which awaits all mortal souls. The skull shows us what our physical bodies will become, the message is that we must be prudent in life.

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More information


G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)


Height: 270.000 mm
Width: 182.000 mm

Museum number

PD 1834-8-4-38 (Bartsch 6)



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