'Narrenkäfig' ("Fool's Cage", 1530).

Erhard Schön, also spelled Erhard Schoen, was an early 16th-century German painter and woodcut artist. Some of his engravings are interesting to comic historians because they show sequential illustrations with text captions underneath the images. Examples are 'Bauernhochzeit' ("Peasant Wedding", 1526), 'Szenen aus dem Leben des HI. Dominicus' ('Scenes From The Life of St. Dominique', 1530), and 'Die Sechs furthereflichen geistlichen gaben' ("The Six Excellent Spiritual Gifts", 1535). Particularly notable is the one-panel drawing 'Narrenkäfig' ("Fools' Cage", 1530), which marks an early use of speech balloons. Schön is also known for his anti-Catholic illustration 'Teufels Dudelsack' ('The Devil's Bagpipe', 1535), which is widely regarded as one of the earliest known political cartoons. The artist was notable for hiding optical illusions in his illustrations. Together with Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jeremias Gath, Hans Holbein the Elder,  Hans Holbein the YoungerBartholomäus Käppeler, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Hans Rogel the Elder, Hans Rogel the YoungerJohann Schubert, Hans Schultes the Elder, Lukas Schultes and Elias Wellhöfer, Erhard Schön is one of the earliest German prototypical comic artists who left us with a signature.

'Unterweisung der Proportion und Stellung der Possen' (1538).

Life and work
Erhard Schön was born in 1491 in Nuremberg, now a German town, but back then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the son of a painter. Schön's main graphic influences were Albrecht Dürer, Georg Pencz and Barthel & Sebald Beham. In adulthood, he became a painter himself, but today he is better known as a productive woodcut artist. In his guide 'Unterweisung der Proportion und Stellung der Possen' (1538), he offered an explanation on poses and proportion. Some pages make use of sequences to show differences in how to depict poses. Schön spent his entire career in his birth city, where he also passed away in 1542.

'Teufels Dudelsack' ("The Devil's Bagpipe", 1535).

Protestant propaganda
In the 1520s, Schön converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. He became an eager producer of anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant pamphlets. To avoid arrest, he left most of them unsigned. His most famous illustrated pamphlet is 'Teufels Dudelsack' ("The Devil's Bagpipe", 1535), which depicts the Devil playing a Roman Catholic monk's head as a bagpipe. Some sources have incorrectly named it an early example of a political caricature, misinterpreting the monk's head as the face of Martin Luther, which is the complete opposite of Schön's original, anti-Catholic intentions. But 'Teufels Dudelsack' can be regarded as an early example of a political cartoon. It uses a metaphor - a bagpipe played by Satan - to satirically mock an institution, in this case the corruption found among Catholic priests. Other artists who made Lutheran propaganda were Lucas Cranach the Elder and Erhard Schön.

'Vexierbild mit vier Porträts' ("Riddle With Four Portraits", 1535).© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Optical illusions
In several of his illustrations, Schön hid optical illusions, naming them "riddles". These hidden images can usually only be spotted if the drawing is watched from a corner of 90 degrees. For instance, on first sight, 'Vexierbild mit vier Porträts' ("Riddle With Four Portraits", 1535), appears to portray a country landscape with animals. But on closer inspection it reveals the faces of Ferdinand I of the Holy Empire, Charles V of Spain, François I of France and Pope Paul III. A similar example is 'Vexierbild mit Jonas und dem Walfish' ("Riddle with Jonah and the Whale", 1538), which hides Jonah and the Whale from the famous biblical tale. Schön's naughtiest optical illusion can be found in 'Vexierbild mit Liebespaar' ("Riddle with Loving Couple", 1535), also known as 'Was siehst du?' ("What Do You See?"), which portrays a kissing couple. Yet when looking at the image from a different 90 degrees angle on the right, they have sex.

Several of Schön's woodcuts were based on recent events, a forerunner of today's newspapers. In the 16th, 17th and 18th century these so-called 'Geschichtsblätter' ("Pages about Events") were very popular. They portrayed battles, massacres, public executions, natural disasters and other atrocities. Schön, for instance, visualized the Sieges of Vienna (1529), Münster (1534-1535) and Budapest (1541). He had equal interest in a miscarriage in Augsburg, which resulted in the birth of a human-animal hybrid (1532) and a witch burning in Schulta (1533). But audiences also loved graphic reports about festive city visits by royals and noblemen, royal marriages and state funerals. Schön was just one of several artists who made such drawings. Other creators included Johannes van den AveeleJeremias Gath, Frans Hogenberg, Romeyn de Hooghe, Bartholomäus Käppeler, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Hans Rogel the Elder, Hans Rogel the Younger, Der Prager Meister von 1609, Johann Schubert, Hans Schultes the Elder, Lucas Schultes and Elias Wellhöfer.

Like most art from that era, the historical accuracy of these graphic "news reports" should be taken with a grain of salt. No eyewitnesses were consulted and all information was based on descriptions from messengers, travelers or hearsay. Unavoidably, anecdotes were sensationalized and used for propaganda purposes. The printers couldn't print opinions that could get them in trouble with the authorities. Audiences wanted to be awed as well. As a result, huge public festivities were made more bombastic, and scenes of death and despair were heavily dramatized. The prints were distributed all over Europe. Once the events became old news, the drawings were bundled and compiled into collectable picture albums.

'Sieben Frauen klagen über ihre Männer' ("Seven Wives Complain About Their Men", 1531).

Prototypical comics
Some of Schön's engravings are notable for their use of sequentially illustrated narratives. In a couple of cases, the sequences are not separated by panels, but still part of one and the same image. One such example is 'Die Verwüstungen durch die Türken' ("The Turkish Destructions", 1532), which visualizes the Ottoman army marching through Europe, leaving many towns in flames. The illustration is 114,8 centimetres long, which was surpassed by Schön's next military-themed drawing. 'Heereszug der Landsknechte' (1535), a nine-part visualization of the campaign of the 'Landsknechte', the German mercenaries who served the Holy Roman Emperor. Their parade is stretched out on a scroll of almost 300 centimeters long. Above each regiment, the different military ranks and weaponry are described. Both of these elaborate descriptive illustrations are told on long scrolls, or "comic strips". Another example of several sequences within one and the same illustration is Schön's 'Hinrichtung eines Mörders zu Regensburg' ("Execution of a Murderer in Regensburg", 1534). The graphic report depicts the branding, wheel torture and impaling of Hans Reichart, a man convicted of murder in the German town Regensburg. Schön portrays the various phases of his cruel execution in a one-panel narrative sequence. For those interested in the gruesome details, the text underneath explains the images.

Schön's cartoon 'Narrenkäfig' ("Fool's Cage", 1530) depicts a group of women who imprison a group of jesters inside a cage. Although not a sequence, the characters use scrolls to talk, a prototypical version of modern-day speech balloons. 'Sieben Männer klagen über ihre Frauen' and 'Sieben Frauen klagen über ihre Männer' ("Seven Men Complain About Their Wives"/"Seven Wives Complain About Their Men", 1531) are thematic companion pieces. They feature, respectively, seven husbands complaining about their wives and vice versa. Although not a comic strip, the work is comparable to a humorous cartoon in the sense that text and image support each other. The illustrations are the eye-catchers, but to know what each man or wife has to say about his or her partner, the reader has to look at the respective number above the character's heads and then compare it with the corresponding number and written description below the image. Also worth mentioning is 'Schandpforte der 12 Tyrannen des Alten Testaments' ("Hall of Shame of the 12 Tyrants of the Old Testament", 1531), a collection of sinful biblical characters presented on a stage, separated by pillars, serving as border panels. People like Goliath, Antiochus and Holofernus pose for the viewer, while a short biography explains their lives. It all brings up comparisons with a modern-day "cast member introduction sheet", found in the opening pages of some adventure comics.

'Bauernhochzeit' ("Peasant Wedding", 1526).

Nevertheless, Schön also made illustrated narrative sequences with clearly separated images. 'Bauernhochzeit' ("Peasant Wedding", 1526) is still a bit ambiguous in this field. It portrays farmers eating and drinking in a tavern, while others enjoy a dance outside. The tavern door is positioned in such a way that the scenes inside and outside can be interpreted as one image or two different ones. Either the inside and outside activities take place at the same time, or they should be viewed as a "before and after" scene. Schön continued the party themes with 'Vier Eigenschaften des Weines' ("Four Features of Wine", 1528). The illustration shows four different outcomes of heavy wine drinking. The table guests in the upper left corner are jolly, while the ones on the right get aggressive and start fighting. In the lower left corner the drinkers are so sick that they throw up. At the lower right, the light-headed drunks act downright silly. 'Four Features of Wine' is not a real "story" in the sense that there is no transition from one scene to another. It is also not clear whether the people depicted in these four different images are intended to be the same characters. Yet the illustration does show four alternative endings to a hypothetical question about the effects of wine consumption. In that sense, it can be considered at least part of a narrative.

In 'Zwölf Bilder der Gerechtigkeit' ("Twelve Images of Justice", 1530), Schön depicts 12 thematically connected scenes of "righful behavior" in rectangular panels, complete with descriptions. In the same religious vein he printed 'Die sechs vortreffliche geistlichen Gaben' ("The Six Excellent Spiritual Gifts", 1535), an illustration of a poem by "Meistersinger" Hans Sachs. The poem is printed underneath the images, while the Six Spiritual Gifts are visualized in eight (and not six!) individual images. Each scene is separated by a large pillar, serving as a border panel. Sachs describes the six spiritual gifts as Faith (1), Love (2), Hope (3), Caution (4), Justice (5), Preciseness (6), Courage (7) and Decisiveness (8).

'Szenen aus dem Leben des HI. Dominicus' ("Scenes From The Life of St. Dominique", 1530).

With 'Szenen aus dem Leben des HI. Dominicus' ("Scenes From The Life of St. Dominique", 1530), Schön visualized the life of 13th-century priest Dominicus Guzmán, founder of the Dominican Order. His biography is told in 10 consecutive panels, with a description underneath the images. To indicate border panels, Schön uses pillars. This striking picture story is perhaps the closest he ever came to draw something comparable to a modern-day text comic. It follows a clear narrative, built around one recurring protagonist, with text and images supporting each other. A close second is the four-panel woodcut 'Fuchsschwanz' ("Foxtail", 1535), which illustrates how the king and peasants use so-called foxtails ("grass clusters") to plow their land. 'Sirene' (1535), a two-sequential tale about a young man who gets seduced by a mermaid, could count as a third.

'Fuchsschwanz' ("Foxtail", 1535).

The strangest prototypical comic strip by Schön might be 'Reine und unreine Vögel' (1534). It offers an overview of all birds that are "pure" or "impure". Schön visualizes each bird in a small drawing, with a description underneath. The "good" ones are shown on the left, like the nightingale, parrot, dove, peacock, chicken and the swan. The "bad" ones, including owls, crows, magpies, ducks, storks and sparrowhawks, are depicted on the right. His criteria are based on biblical associations and otherwise unrelated folk legends and popular animal stereotypes. The very idea of categorizing birds based on their supposed character traits is nowadays laughable. But since this classification was made centuries before ornithology became a science, some of Schön's assumptions are even more ludicrous. Some animals he describes as "birds" may indeed have wings, but aren't actually related to avifauna, like the bee ("good side") and the bat ("bad side"). Of other flying creatures he portrayed we now know that they don't even exist, such as the phoenix ("good side") and the griffin ("bad side").

'Reine und unreine Vögel' (1534).

Erhard Schoen on zeno.org

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