Who was the Master E.S. — and what does this rare print reveal?

Only 13 impressions of The Madonna of Einsiedeln by the Master E.S. are known to exist today, 12 of which are in public collections. We know very little about him — so what can we deduce from this 15th-century print, which set a world auction record for the artist in New York?

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Master E.S. (active circa 1450-67), The Madonna of Einsiedeln: Large Version. Sheet 207 x 122 mm. Sold for $372,500 on 29 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The identity of the engraver known as the Master E.S., a prodigiously talented printmaker responsible for some of the most technically sophisticated images of the mid-1400s, remains a mystery. Very little is known about this artist, and so much of it speculative, that the fragments of his life can almost be summed up in a single paragraph.

What is known has been carefully deduced from his engravings. Ahead of a rare and important print by the Master E.S. achieving $372,500 at Christie’s in New York, a world record for the artist at auction, our specialists tried to piece together the history of this compelling but unknown artist, and the story behind this intriguing work.

The origin of his name

His name has been assigned to him by art historians, and is derived from the monogram, E.S., which in variations of these letters appears on 18 of his prints. The Master E.S. is the first printmaker to initial his work. He is also the second engraver to have dated his prints; there is only one print by another, anonymous engraver with an earlier date. 

The Large Madonna of Einsiedeln, offered in New York on 29 January, is dated 1466 on the plate and inscribed with a capital E in Gothic script. Of the approximately 314 plates by this engraver known to us today, 18 bear a monogram in various versions of the letters E and S: together or alone, in capitals or small letters

The Master E.S. was a native of the Upper Rhine

Several clues in his artworks suggest that he came from the Upper Rhine, the most persuasive being the Swiss watermarks on the paper he used and the inscriptions written in Alemannic German. It situates him as working somewhere in the triangle between Alsace, Lake Constance, Switzerland and Breisgau, in south-west Germany.

His style is influenced by his contemporaries, the painter Konrad Witz and the sculptor Nicolaus Gerhaert, who were both working in this region in the mid-1400s. 

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The inscriptions are written in Alemannic German, which suggests that Master E.S. lived somewhere between Alsace, Switzerland and Breisgau in southwest Germany

He most likely trained as a goldsmith

He used a handheld metal tool called a burin, used by goldsmiths for engraving the decoration into metal objects. Taking inked impressions from these objects led to the invention of engraving as a printmaking technique. 

The Master E.S. was active between 1450 and 1468

There are no engravings of his dated later than 1468, suggesting that he either ceased to be a printmaker, or died.

He was commissioned to celebrate a miracle

The present engraving commemorates a miracle witnessed by the Bishop of Einsiedeln in middle of the 10th century. In 861 the hermit St. Meinrad was murdered in the hills south of Lake Zürich. A monastery was built on the site where he died and some 100 years later, Christ and a host of angels appeared to the Bishop and consecrated the hermit’s chapel.

The miracle was recognised by the Vatican, and over the following centuries Einsiedeln became one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of central Europe.

His oeuvre is by far the largest of any printmaker of the mid-15th century, the most technically sophisticated and varied, and the most copied

In 1465 the chapel burned down and had to be rebuilt. The Madonna of Einsiedeln  would have been a commission for the 500-year celebrations of the miracle, which lasted for two weeks and attracted more than 130,000 pilgrims. 

This is one of only 13 surviving impressions

The Master E.S. engraved two other, smaller versions of the Madonna of Einsiedeln, both also bearing the date 1466. Only 13 impressions of the present, largest and most elaborate version exist today; 11 of these are in public collections in Europe and another is in The Art Institute of Chicago in America.

This example, the only one today in private hands, once belonged to the Duke of Saxony-Teschen, a prolific collector who amassed one of the finest collections of Old Master prints in the world, now housed in the Albertina in Vienna.

The Master E.S. was the most copied printmaker of the 15th century

The importance of the Master E.S. and the Large Madonna of Einsiedeln  cannot be overstated. His oeuvre is by far the largest of any printmaker of the mid-15th century, the most technically sophisticated and varied, and the most copied, including by Israhel van Meckenem, who may have been his apprentice.

The playing card of the King of Men  (shown above, and also offered in New York) is a reversed copy after the same card by the Master E.S. The original card belongs to his Larger Deck of Cards, which comprised 48 cards in four suits of 12 cards each: Men, Dogs, Birds, Coats-of-Arms (instead of today’s hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds). 

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Of the original deck by the Master E.S., 42 different cards have survived, most only in one or two impressions, with the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna holding a fine and large group of them. Of Israhel’s version of the deck, only 24 different cards have survived.  

The card offered in New York shows the King of Men  as a Turkish knight on horseback. The figure is very close to the original by the Master E.S., but Israhel reversed the image, added a star to the blade of the scimitar and some spikes to the spurs.

To denote the suit of the card, above the rider to the left is a small figure of a man: a Turkish foot-soldier wearing a turban and holding a shield is poised to throw a javelin.

Both of these rare survivals of 15th-century printmaking come from the collection of Herschel V. and Carl W. Jones of Minneapolis, and have earlier princely provenance. This small, exquisite group of engravings is rounded off by a superb impression of the Death of the Virgin by Martin Schongauer, the first European printmaker known by name.

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