This charming playing card of the King of Men is a reversed copy after the same card by the Master E.S. (Lehrs 251), in whose workshop Israhel van Meckenem may have worked as an apprentice or journeyman.
The original card by the Master E.S. belongs to his Larger Deck of Cards, which comprised 48 cards in the following four suits of 12 cards each: Men, Dogs, Birds, Coats-of-Arms (instead of today's hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds). Of this deck, 42 different cards have survived, most only in one or two impressions. The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna holds a fine and large group of them, mostly with traces of handcolouring, including the sole known impression of the King of Men.
The related Larger Deck of Cards by Israhel, to which the present card belongs, also comprised 48 cards in the suits Men, Dogs, Birds and Flowers. Of this deck, only 24 different cards have survived, also in only a few examples at the most. Of the present version by Israhel van Meckenem, Lehrs records two impressions in public collections (Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden & Collection Rothschild, Paris). He also cites the present one in the York sale of 1932 and states correctly that it came from Gotha (and not, as one might be lead to believe, from the collection of Graf York von Wartenburg).
It is significant that Israhel in his deck of cards did not replicated the Coat-of-Arms suit, but instead copied the Flower cards from a different deck. As Lehrs points out (Vol. II, p. 9), decks of cards with the suit Coat-of-Arms were commonly played in Switzerland, but virtually unknown elsewhere. This seems to confirm that the Master E.S. worked in Switzerland or for the Swiss market (see also lot 3). It furthermore suggests that, if Israhel had indeed learned the art of engraving from the Master E.S., he would have created this deck of cards for the German market, presumably upon his return to Bocholt on the Lower Rhine around 1480.
The card shows the King of Men, the highest card of the deck, as a Turkish knight on horseback. He wears a crowned hat, a long cloak and high boots with spurs. With his left hand, he holds a raised scimitar, with his right he pulls the reins towards him, forcing his horse - a small and elegant Turkish stallion - to turn its plumed head sideways. He cuts a dashing if somewhat menacing figure, with his pointy beard and unnerving grin. The figure is very close to the original by the Master E.S., except for Israhel's addition of a star to the blade of the scimitar and of 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 with a turban. Holding a shield, he is about to throw a javelin.
In the suit of Men of this deck of cards, the figures depicted are all male and all with Turkish dress and weaponry, presumably a reflection of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire at the time and the conquest of Constantinople on 29 May 1453.
The production of playing cards was one of the earliest uses of printmaking in Europe, at first in the woodcut technique but since around the 1430s also in engraving. In fact, the first recognisable artistic personality in the history of engraving is known as the Master of the Playing Cards (see for example the Queen of Flowers, Christie's, London, 20 September 2006, lot 71; now Metropolitan Museum, New York).
Engraved playing cards include some of the most original, yet elegant and concentrated compositions of 15th century printmaking, but are mostly found in public collections and are extremely rare to the market.