Social Class Depictions by 16th-Century Woodblock Artist Jost Amman


Jost Amman’s 1578 publication of woodcut illustrations included an array of subject matter, including idealized depictions of people from various social strata and different classes. Although we can get a sense of this class stratification, we can’t really use Amman’s woodcuts as necessarily representative of true-to-life depictions of dress, fashion, or the realism of the people at that time. Not unlike publication material in our own present day, where magazines and advertisements and marketing materials provide us with images of how we’d like to envision ourselves as opposed to the lumpy, poverty-stricken, and slovenly attire and body-image that we project in our actual everyday lives… These images in Amman’s Kunstbüchlin were meant more as entertainment than as a realistic depiction of society. The wealthy and high ranking—who were able to afford the purchase of the book at all—wanted to envision themselves as the elegant nobility dressed in finery that Amman provided for them. Likewise, they could tittilate themselves with images of how the lower classes lived by viewing Amman’s festive pictures of the peasantry “enjoying” their lowly serfdom.


As Alfred Werner states in his introduction to the 1968 reprint of the Dover Publications edition:


“Contemporary buyers of this book…liked to see fashionably dressed men and women on fine horses—they appear here approximately ninety times. Apparently, art patrons loved examples of high living, and in these plates there is often such emphasis on precious and elaborate costume at the expense of facial expression that at times the figures look as though they had been inserted into the clothing as an afterthought—as though they were little more than mannequins. At the same time, Amman’s patrons…also enjoyed seeing, from a safe distance, how the “common people” lived, and how much inferior they were. This explains the appeal in the sixteenth century (and thereafter) of genre art not concerned with social questions and totally devoid of social criticism. Hence the many plates showing stable boys, farmers and other representatives of ‘low life’ often with a comic note.”*


We must think of Amman’s social portrait illustrations as an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” or as a gossip magazine splashed with the latest paparazzi photos of the Kardashians (try not to vomit). But despite its unrealistic confabulation, it still provides us with confirmation that various class strata existed, along with the prejudices and stereotypes associated with them. In that sense, we can look at these illustrations from a historical context…


Werner’s words seem important though, especially when and if we consider whether the tarot was really any different than Jost Amman’s contrived depictions of societal and class life. Truly, in a sense, we can think about Amman’s book as being a type of propaganda. The rich used it as an idealized representation of what the nobility looked like; they could also use it to “peer-pressure” fellow nobility to hold a certain standard of elegance. (“This is the bar that you have to meet, and if it’s necessary to have to spend an extra gold coin for more fabric from Paris in order to make this dress, so be it.”) They could also use it to perpetuate prejudices between class systems… (“The peasants are expected to look like this, and no better, and furthermore, this is how they are expected to entertain themselves and how they will behave in public settings.”) In this sense, Amman’s book was a sort of public dictionary of decorum and social structure. Correlatively, the tarot, which contains a lot of the same type of imagery, could be thought of as a public dictionary of moral or catechetical pedagogy.


These particular images come from the fourth edition published in 1599 (after Amman’s death). Click on any image for a larger view. Within the light box, click on the “i” at the bottom of the picture to generate further commentary on each image.




*Amman, Jost. 293 Renaissance Woodcuts for Artists and Illustrators: Jost Amman’s Kunstbüchlin with a new introduction by Alfred Werner. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968). [an unabridged and unaltered republication of Jost Amman’s Kunstbüchlin, as published by Johann Feyerabend, Frankfurt a. M., in 1599.] Introduction p. xii-xiii. The publication specifically indicates that reproduction of illustrations is permitted.





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Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot History, Tarot Reading and tagged , , , , , , , .

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