In the history of European printmaking, the importance of the Master E.S. and the present Large Madonna of Einsiedeln cannot be overstated. His oeuvre is by far the largest of any printmaker until then, the most technically sophisticated and varied, and the most copied - including by Israhel van Meckenem, who may have been his apprentice (see lot 4).
Belonging to the second generation of northern engravers, the Master E.S. was the first to add a monogram to his prints. Of the approximately 314 plates 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. He was also the second engraver to ever date his prints. Two of his prints are dated 1461, four 1466 and ten 1467. Only one other European print bears an earlier date, a small Flagellation dated 1446, by an anonymous engraver named accordingly the Master of 1446.
Of the Master E.S., nothing is known that cannot be deduced from his engravings. From some of his designs we can conclude that he was trained as a goldsmith. The inscriptions in some of his prints in Alemannic German suggest that he lived in the Upper Rhine region between Alsace, Switzerland, Lake Constance and the Breisgau, most likely in Strasbourg. His printing papers, as far as we can tell from watermarks, are mostly of Upper Rhenish or Swiss origin. His most pronounced artistic influences - the paintings of Konrad Witz and the sculpture of the Nicolaus Gerhaerts, who worked in Strasbourg in the 1460s - further locate him in this region.
His presumably earliest prints have been dated around 1450, while some of his most mature works bear the date 1467. No later date is found in his oeuvre, suggesting that by 1468 he had either died or had ceased to make engravings.
The Large Madonna of Einsiedeln, dated on the plate 1466 and inscribed with a capital Letter E, is by no means the master's largest, but arguably his finest work, displaying a systematic and varied use of different marks and lines, a remarkable understanding of space, and an astonishing attention to detail. Max Lehrs (1855-1938), the great scholar and cataloguer of 15th century engravings, described it as 'the best known and compositionally the most outstanding work by his hand' (Lehrs II, no. 81, p. 149).
Through a wide arch, we see the Virgin with crown and halo, dressed in a brocade dress and surrounded by the folds of her wide cloak, as she sits enthroned on a broad stone altar inside a small round chapel. In a wide step, the naked Christ Child stands on her knees, an apple in his hand. To her left stands an angel, to her right a saint with an abbot's staff, both holding candles. At the foot of the altar, two pilgrims, a man and woman, are kneeling in prayer. Other pilgrims stand inside the chapel: to the right a young man with long hair, about to lift his hat; another to the right, older and with cropped hair, holding his broadbrimmed hat before his chest, his leg and foot visible below the altar table; a third is approaching from the back of the chapel at right, half hidden behind by the gothic ciborium behind the altar. The exterior of the chapel is hinted at with a small plant on either side, at the edges of the image. Several of the stone blocks of the arch bear stonemason's marks. The left of the lintel bears the date 1466, the right the capital letter E in Gothic script. Further to the right hangs a wooden votive plaque. On top of the chapel, we see the Holy Trinity. Behind a gothic balustrade with a Papal Crest at centre, stand Christ and God the Father, crowned and regally dressed. As a further sign of their majesty, the balustrade is draped with brocade cloths. The Holy Ghost flies overhead. Behind them a multitude of angels has gathered, singing, playing the lute and holding a baldachin aloft. One angel holds Christ's regalia, the sceptre and orb, another a vessel of holy water for Christ to sprinkle over the Virgin and Child and the pilgrims below. God the Father holds the Scripture in one hand, the other is raised in a blessing.
The key to all this is the inscription written on the inside of the arch: Dis ist die engelwichi zu unser lieben frouwen zu den einsidlen ave gracia plenna ('This is the angel consecration of our dear Lady of Einsiedeln hail full of grace').
In the 9th century the hermit saint Meinrad was given a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary by Hildegard, Abbess of Zürich, for his hermitage in the hills to the south of the Zürichsee. The hermit shrine of the Virgin became a place of veneration, but the chapel was not formally consecrated before Meinrad was murdered in 861 AD. The place remained a hermitage, and in 934 the church and monastery of Einsiedeln was built. Nearly a century after Meinrad's death, Bishop Conrad of Constance witnessed a miracle as he was praying in the chapel: Christ and a host of angels appeared and consecrated the chapel. Whenever he subsequently tried to formally dedicate the chapel, Christ and the angels appeared again and performed the ceremony. The miracle was recognised by the Vatican and in 966 a papal bull gave the monastery the right to grant indulgences to the pilgrims. Over the following centuries, Einsiedeln became a large Benedictine Abbey and one of the most important sites of pilgrimage in central Europe. Every year on 14 September the angel consecration, or 'Engelweihe', is celebrated, and it is this miracle the engraving by the Master E.S. is depicting.
As Edith Warren Hoffman has demonstrated, it was the Benedictine Abbey who commissioned the Master E.S. to make the print. The year 1466, the date of the engraving, was the five-hundreth anniversary of the papal bull, giving the pilgrimage and the festival of the 'Engelweihe' of that year a particular importance. What is more, the chapel had suffered a fire and was destroyed, together with the original statue of the Virgin the previous year. In was reconstructed and the statue replaced with another. The celebrations in 1466, which also marked the renewal of the chapel, lasted for two weeks and attracted over 130,000 pilgrims. The Abbey had the sole right to sell votive images and objects and presumably needed the money for the reconstruction. As Warren Hoffman further points out, the saint next to the Virgin is not Meinrad, as was previously thought, but Saint Benedict, the founder of the Abbey's order. Furthermore, the Papal Crest on the balustrade refers directly to the Papal Bull and the remission of sin through the pilgrimage. The print therefore must have been issued by the Abbey itself and not by the engraver on his own behalf.
The Master E.S. engraved two other, smaller prints of the Madonna of Einsiedeln, both also bearing the date 1466. The smallest only shows the Virgin and Child with an angel and a saint in a gothic chapel. The third one, of medium size, has a short inscription ('Dicz ist dis engelwich zuon einsidlen') and shows the Virgin, Child, Angel and Saint in a different chapel, with Christ and God the Father blessing the chapel from above. The present one is by far the largest and most complex one, made for the richest pilgrims, while the smaller ones were made for people with less money and a lesser degree of literacy. Interestingly, the chapel and the Virgin and Child group looks different in each of the three engravings, indicating that they were not meant as a portrait of the miraculous statue or a souvenir of the place, but as objects of private devotion and possibly as indulgences. To the faithful, it was not statue or the image that mattered, but the Virgin Mary Herself.
Only 13 impressions of the Large Madonna of Einsiedeln are known today, with the present one being the last in private hands. All others are in public collections, in Bamberg, Basel, Berlin, Chicago (previously Wolfegg), Dresden, Hamburg, Hannover, London, Munich, Paris (Louvre), Paris (Collection Rothschild), and Vienna. The present impression compares favourably to the impression in the British Museum, printing more clearly and sharply in the finest details.
We are grateful to Dr Christof Metzger, Albertina, Vienna, and Peter Fuhring, Fondation Custodia, Paris, for their help in establishing the provenance of this lot.