The Godless Painter: Sebald Beham

Does the woodblock print below look familiar? If not, sit back to learn more! Not only is a it a striking image of a horse, there is a pretty interesting backstory about the artist as well.

The woodblock print can be found in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s copy of Hippiatria sive Marescalia by Lorenzo Rusio. Rusio, who published under a Latinized version of his name, “Laurentius Rusius,” gained his expertise as a stable master to a Roman cardinal in the 14th century, according to a bibliography by Richard Baron von Hunersdorff:

Originally written in the 13th century, [Hippiatria] it was based on sources compiled at the court of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, himself a passionate horseman. Described are methods of controlling the horse by means of physical force exercised by way of severe horse-bits. It was an attempt to solve the problem of quickly stopping and turning the heavy and coarse horses used in combat and jousting (176, von Hunersdorff).

In Hippiatria, the three large woodcuts were created by H.S. Beham (Hans Sebald Beham). Born in 1550, Beham was a noted German printmaker, and is known as the most prominent of the “Little Masters,” a group of German printmakers who produced a prodigious number of highly detailed prints during the first half of the 16th century. The artists were active a generation after the great artist, Albrecht Durer. Like Durer, Beham was also based in Nuremberg.

Beham was a young man when the Reformation broke out in 1517, when Martin Luther attempted to reform the Christian Church. Passionate about Luther’s ideas, Beham found himself caught in the cross-current of the new religious ideas, and had to flee from his home-base in Nuremberg several times to avoid arrest. For his part, Beham contributed to the “Wild Reformation” through woodcuts, the most popular and accessible form of publicity and to some extent, the acquisition of knowledge, in those days of limited literacy. In some ways, woodcuts prints were the TikTok videos of the 1500s. The year of the Peasants War, 1525, Sebald, and his younger brother Barthel, were banished from Nuremberg for religious and political disobedience. In 1528, after publishing a book on the proportions of the horse, Dises Büchlein zeyget an und lernet ein Mass oder Proportion der Ross, Beham was accused of plagiarizing unpublished work by Dürer and again fled from Nuremberg.

There are not enough records to determine whether or not Beham was indeed guilty of plagiarism. In any case, the nickname, “The Godless Painter” was given to Beham during his trial with the Nuremberg city council. According to scholar Alison G. Stewart:

In the following years, Beham once again ran into trouble in Nuremberg. On July 22, 1528, the town council prohibited Beham and his colleague “Iheronimus formschneidern,” probably the printer-woodcutter Hieronymus Andreae, from publishing Beham’s book on the proportions of horses … until Dürer’s book on human proportions was published posthumously by his widow, who was the manager of Dürer’s workshop. The fact that Beham fled town quickly when summoned by the authorities (which resulted in his wife having to send his coat to him) might suggest that he was indeed guilty of plagiarism, as charged, although his guilt has been neither proved nor disproved. But it is also possible that Beham left posthaste because he feared he would be imprisoned or expelled, having previously experienced the power of the Nuremberg authorities to do just that. 

Two woodcuts by H.S. Beham, each signed with his monogram beneath the horse
Close up of marking for the library of the Marquis de Guineye

This copy, a second edition published in Paris, contains the markings indicating that the book was once owned by the Marquis de Guineye. Later, the book was owned by the German researcher and academic, and book collector, J.H. Anderhub, whose bookplate dates ownership at 1937. According the the von Hunersdorff bibliography, the copy at the University of Cambridge is “imperfect, lacking the two leaves with the Beham woodcuts.” We are indeed lucky at the NLSM to have such a well-kept copy!

I recommend reading the fascinating article by Alison G. Stewart on Sebald Beham. She provides in-depth research on the art of Behald, his training and possible link to Dürer, plus great detail on the numerous(!) run-ins that Beham had with the law. You can read her article, Sebald Beham: Entrepreneur, Printmaker, Painter here: https://jhna.org/articles/sebald-beham-entrepreneur-printmaker-painter/.

1 Comment

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  1. Great work. No wonder why they called it the ‘wild reformation!” Quite a story. Beautiful woodcuts, regardless of the artist. I will try to get to the link. Once again, the von Hunersdorff collection proves it is unmatched!

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