Art Appraiser & Art History Writer and Editor
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How Printmaking Began: Engravings (The Northern Narrative)

Early History

A generation after woodblock printing began a new technique was created: engraving. Incising into metal to create designs was not a new concept, in Ancient times the technique was used to decorate metal, and in the Middle Ages it was used by gold and silversmiths to embellish their work. However, the idea of using this technique pictorially and for the sole purpose of producing images did not begin until the initial decades of the 15th century, and the earliest engraved impressions were produced around 1430. 

There are two narratives as to how engravings came about in the 15th century — the Northern story and the Southern story. Today, we will discuss how engravings began in the North.

The earliest Northern engraving is by the Master of 1446 and depicts the Flagellation of Christ. Comparing this to what we saw in the early woodcuts, here there is greater sophistication in the line, and it has much finer and delicate strokes.

Master of the Playing Cards

Other significant early engravers inculde the Master of the Playing Cards and the Master ES. The Master of the Playing Cards was so called because of a suite of 60 engraved cards that depicted flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and old men. He used short, simple parellel lines to depict his subjects. The Master ES is credited with over three hundred engravings and for using a more sophistacted technique of a short punchy line with flicks and dots. 

The Use of Early Engravings

Similar to the use of woodcuts, engravings were used for religious subjects, playing cards and book illustration. However, Anthony Griffiths notes in Prints and Printmaking that they also depicted secular subjects like folk legends, animals and ornamental designs, which are not seen in contemporary woodcuts. Engraving could also not fully replace book illustration, because it couldn't produce as many impressions as woodcuts could from a single plate or block.

Master ES created all types of subjects, including the earliest pilgrim souvenirs. The image below was created for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of papal permission to the monastery of Einsiedeln for granting the remission of sins to pilgrims. It came in three different sizes, and was priced accordingly. 

Master ES Engraving

Martin Schongauer

In the 1470s, engraving was impacted significantly by Martin Schongauer. He was the first Northern engraver who can be identified, and whose biography we know. Born in Colmar, Alsace, his father was a silversmith, so he was likely familiar with the act of incising into metal. It is also believed that he worked with the Master ES. He was the first engraver to curve the lines, and the Master ES likely had a workshop and Schongauer's technique is apparent in many prints. He was ambitious in his work and created complex compositions, including one of his masterpieces The Road to Calvary, which was one of the largest early copperplates printed and had more figures in a single composition than any of print of the time. 

Martin Schongauer

In the engraving, Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha as soldiers surround him in a compact composition. Schongauer uses a gradation of tones, juxtoposing the dark shadows and detailed costumes of the figures with a schematic landscape in the background. Most striking is the manner in which Schongauer turns Christ's face towards the viewer, forcing the them to confront Christ's suffering. 

Further Reading:

Anthony Griffiths. Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 

Friedrich Lippmann, Max Lehrs, Martin Hardie. Engraving and Etching: A Handbook for the Use of Students and Print Collectors

A. Hyatt Mayor. Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.