Popular Imagery is the term used for graphic prints that were brought out in large numbers for a broad section of the population, such as devotional images, greeting cards, friendship and calling cards, printed wall paintings, broadsheets with illustrated narratives, cardboard sheets for handi crafts, paper crèches, broadsheets with pictures of current events, paper games and much more.
In most cultures people have used imagery and symbolism to familiarize themselves with religious concepts.
In Christianity the need for concrete visual conception was especially great, particularly for the Catholic Church. That is why much popular imagery shows religious motifs. These were designed to instruct people in the fundamentals of their faith and aid them in their daily devotions. The Feld-Haus has many examples of such devotional images, most of them dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries. They include small-format pictures that were placed in prayer books or hymnals, wall prints with depictions of saints and guardian angels, printed sheets with Biblical scenes or embroidered and printed benedictions that were to be found in many Catholic and Protestant households well into the 20th century.
One eye-catcher in the Feld-Haus is a wall packed densely with prints from the collection of wall painting prints. One of the earliest functions of serially printed single sheets was as décor for homes.
Among the most popular themes were pictures of saints, views of towns or landscapes and genre scenes. In the 19th century new printing techniques like steel engraving and lithography allowed inexpensive mass production of pictures, making decorative wall prints available to all. Many of these prints were based on well-known artworks, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”
There were also special motifs that were marketed in numerous variations. An example is the so called Ages of Man. In these pictures the stages of human life are illustrated as a staircase with
ascending and descending steps.
The predecessors of the colored broadsheets that were printed by the hundreds of thousands in the 19th century can be traced as far back as the 15th century. At a time when few people were able to read, printers produced single sheets with a large illustration on the front with a short, explanatory text.
These usually showed spectacular events like major battles, volcanic eruptions or the coronation of a ruler. The great age of the broadsheet was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cheap prints became a medium for information and entertainment for all social classes and generations. The most popular images were sheets with illustrated stories, humorous scenes, instructive illustrations, games or every day scenes. The colorful sheets became popular commodities. Some motifs were printed in editions of 300.000 and were marketed throughout Europe.
A high point in the collection is the stock of small billets known as friendship cards. They were extremely popular with all segments of the population in the period between 1750 and 1850 and were
exchanged between family members or friends. They are printed with pictures and short texts and were given either with or without personal dedications. The inventiveness of the producers knew few bounds and led to ever-new forms of cards with elaborate folding, hoisting and turning mechanisms. One special type is the Viennese Art Billet, most notably produced by Johann Joseph Endletsberger. He designed miniature collages of materials like gold and silver threads, glass, beads, glossy paper and fragments of mirrors. The billets were produced in small series or as individual pieces – and were thus exclusive goods that only few people could afford.