Letterpress has now almost completely been replaced by offset and digital printing for commercial applications and mainstream publishing. Yet it has been revived in recent decades by private presses, artists and hobbyists who appreciate the distinctive beauty of the method and the craftsmanship needed to practice it. My reason for preferring this method to reproduce religious artwork I explained in my Steubenville lecture of 2015:
Catholic tradition maintains that the virtue of sacred relics can imparted through contact. Things that touch the relics of Our Lord’s Passion or the mortal remains of the saints become relics themselves, although of a lower class. When I speak of the virtue of sacred relics, I do not mean a magical property that works independently of the will of God (for the working of miracles is proper to God alone), but rather the quality that sets it apart from an ordinary piece of wood or bone or cloth. That distinction is real enough to terrify demons. In the Middle Ages, the faithful believed that this virtue could also be transferred optically; where the relics were inaccessible to touch, pilgrims held up mirrors to reflect them. The mirrors were then carried homeward, and treated as relics of a lower class.The majority of Millefleur Press projects are printed at Rohner Letterpress (Chicago, IL), which uses Heidelberg windmill presses to print small sheets and Heidelberg cylinder presses to print large sheets.
The Cathedral of Aachen is home to four relics of particular distinction: the dress worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary on the night of the Nativity, the Holy Infant’s swaddling cloths, the fabric used to wrap the head of St. John the Baptist and the loincloth worn by Jesus Christ on the cross. Since the fourteenth century, these have been displayed at septennial jubilees, unfurled from the gallery connecting the cathedral’s belfry to its octagonal dome.
In anticipation of the jubilee of 1439, a clever silversmith began to manufacture quantities of pilgrim mirrors, convex ones that could reflect a panorama. He had partners in this enterprise; all were disappointed when the jubilee was postponed due to plague. At a loss for money, the silversmith offered to share with two of his partners another idea, one that he had been developing in secret. They listened, doubled their investments, and set to work on the confidential endeavor. The silversmith’s name was Johann Gutenberg; the endeavor involved the making of tiny metal letters that could be arranged into text; a viscous oil-based ink; and a press like that used by vintners and bookbinders, but adapted to the purpose of printing on paper, an art that previously had been done through manual pressure.
Indirectly, the cult of relics gave Gutenberg his funding. I think that it gave him also the idea for the printing press itself. Consider the mechanism of a printing press: a matrix - which might be a wooden block with a holy picture carved in its surface, or a Biblical text set in forty-two lines of metal type - is inked, and touched to a different object, a piece of paper. Through touch, the matrix makes the paper into something like itself. The process can be repeated with practically no exhaustion of the matrix. Every printer knows that typeset text must run backwards; when printed, images are reversed, just like things reflected in a mirror.
Gutenberg believed that relics can impart their virtue through contact and reflection. In the years when he conceived his printing press, this was at the forefront of his mind, as was the problem of sharing this virtue among great multitudes; we know this as a fact of history. What Gutenberg invented was a technological metaphor for pilgrimage.
In fact, many printed sheets of the fifteenth century were distributed as pilgrim souvenirs. Later scholars gave to the printed books of that century the name incunabula; how fitting this is! Incunabula is the Latin word for swaddling cloths, and the Holy Infant’s swaddling cloths were among the relics exhibited at the Aachen jubilee.
I am determined to make printed works of art in the same spirit, ones that look, feel, smell and are like those of the fifteenth century. I hope to publish my own illustrated editions of popular late medieval religious blockbooks and a Book of Hours. To date, I have issued relief prints only in individual sheets, their images based on my original drawings and typefaces. My method is not exactly Gutenberg’s; I hire pressmen who operate machines much faster than his, and they transfer the images and text onto plates by a photochemical process. But the printed sheets are nonetheless made by the same essential mechanism of contact and reflection.
The question of how deep an impression to leave in a letterpress print is debated. Many contemporary printers leave as deep an impression as possible, to make apparent that this traditional printing method is being used. Others regard deep impressions as tasteless and ahistorical. The prints issued by Millefleur Press imitate what I have seen and felt in books from the 15th century and from the 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement: the impression is noticeable but not exaggerated.
You may read more about Millefleur Press and see the broadsides and bookplates available at this web page.