Printed words and images made in Europe before the year 1501 belong to a special class of artifacts known as incunabula. The term is derived from a Latin word for swaddling clothes or cradle. It refers to the earliest stages or first traces of things. By 1588 the term was associated with printed books, pamphlets, and broadsides made in the 15th century—including block books whose text and images are carved in a single wooden printing block and typographic books that are made with individual pieces of movable type on a printing press, like the Gutenberg Bible of 1455.
The MMFA collection includes 18 incunabula. These woodcuts and engravings were made by Andrea Mantegna (Italian, ca. 1431–1506), Martin Schongauer (German, ca. 1445–1491), and Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). They depict religious, mythological, and anecdotal subjects that were popular during the Renaissance and they illuminate the visual culture of that age as well as the evolution of early printmaking techniques from woodcut to engraving.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website