The history of European master prints starts in the 15th century, almost simultaneously in different countries. But while the reasons of its emergence were everywhere the same, its development took different paths. The role of master prints in the art also varied from country to country. In Germany it was sometimes more important than anything else: every major German artist (with the exception of Grünewald) created engravings or woodcuts. That is why it was here that the art of engraving and woodcutting reached an incredible technical and artistic perfection. The master prints together with the painting defined the style of the German Renaissance.

The reasons for emergence and quick development of master prints in 15th-century Germany came from the changes in the social, religious and spiritual life of the country. The new type of art, relatively cheap and accessible, capable of producing many copies, was needed and could be used in different layers of society. The Church was quick to realize the advantages of printing. Pictures of scenes from the Old and New Testament, of saints and apostles, printed on paper, were sold as indulgences. At the same time, the Church reformers used the prints to fight the Church, commanding and distributing satiric images of monks and priests. The role played by pictures in the fight against the Papacy was extremely important among the illiterate. But the prints were also very popular among the humanists and other educated people. Prints made from copperplate engravings were very esthetical, prints from woodcuts became indispensable parts of books, sold in many more copies in 15th century, and becoming much more attractive with printed images. The paper was also produced in greater quantity, contributing to the growth of book publishing. The paper permitted the graphic arts to develop in Europe.

Woodcut or xylography appeared in Europe in the late 14th – early 15th century. Initially it was used by wood-carvers and cloth printing masters. It is a relief printing technique. A wooden block is used, most often of beech or pear wood. Initially the blocks were cut along the grain of the wood. Such blocks could be very large. To conceal the grain, every line of the drawing carved in the block was cut from both sides by a sharp knife, and the background was removed. A relief of a drawing was created and covered with ink. The sheet of paper was put against the block and rubbed with the help of a rag or a special bone for rubbing the paper – and the impression was made. Later they started to use a printing press. As woodcuts were intimately linked with book printing, specialization of labour started early. The artist designed a woodcut, the craftsman carved the block, the printer made impressions in the typography. Experienced artists knew very well all the peculiarities of the woodcutting and took them into account when creating drawings for the woodcuts.

When working with woodcuts, difficulties may arise because the resistance of the grain to the knife is uneven in different parts of the block. Relief lines of the drawing, carved from the block, are very fragile. But a wooden block with a carved image is much more suitable for the typesetting than an intaglio. The image looked well on the page of the book, near the text, and was often used to illustrate the book.

Almost nothing is known about the first woodcuts. It is supposed that at first the technique was used to make playing cards. The earliest surviving impressions (very few of them) date from the beginning of 15th century. These are popular prints on religious subjects, quite primitive, with thick outlines. Such prints were later to be coloured with red, blue, yellow and green watercolours.

The woodcut was made for broad audiences and destined to be a book for the illiterate. That is why the figures were large, the design was simplified, the colour was used to bring the image closer to the real life, to be clear and understandable.

First woodcuts became greatly popular. They were printed in many copies, sold at fairs and quickly spread through all the country, from one city to another. A print from a woodcut became an important part of life. It would serve as a paper icon, as an amulet (there were, for instance, anti-plague woodcuts), a decoration of the interior. Prints were cheap and available, and destroyed as simply as created.

While choosing the story and the composition, woodcutters looked for inspiration to the well-known altarpieces. A medieval cathedral with its artistic richness, concentrating the culture and the art of the past, became a source of models for many a woodcutter. Painted and sculpted decorations of the cathedrals were used to design a woodcut, stained-glass windows could serve as models for colouring the prints. Bright and strong colours of stained-glass windows were familiar to both the creators of the woodcuts and their customers.

One of the earliest surviving woodcuts is Saint Dorothea dating from the years 1410–1420. It probably was made in Southern Germany. Only a black and white version of its impression is known, permitting to appraise the mastery of the woodcutter. A wide and rich line creates an image of the saint against the background of a blossoming tree. The lines are always the same, whether they delineate the figure, the pleats in clothes or the tree. They create a decorative pattern on the sheet of paper.

The decorativeness is the main feature of early woodcuts and it was not disturbed if the image was coloured. Book illustrations were often coloured as well: the pictures in the books also came from popular images. At first the image was linked to the text by engraving the text and the picture on the same block. Later such blocks were used to create books known as ‘block books’.

First block books or xylographicas were created in woodcutters’ workshops, with the artisans combining the roles of a cutter, a printer and a publisher. The printing press and the movable type invented by Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century gave start to the typographic method of publishing. Cheap good-quality movable type books produced in many copies replaced manuscripts and books printed from wooden blocks. It was in line with the spirit of the time – and the printing houses emerged very quickly in all the major cities of Germany. Their owners cared not only about the quality and quantity of the editions but also about their design. They hired artists to create illustrations to the text. Carvers made woodcuts following the artist’s drawing, and printers added letters to the image and printed the pages of the book. Such division of labour existed until the 16th century. Though the artist was considered author of the woodcut, its quality depended much on mastery and professionalism of the carver.

The employment of artists in preparation of books not only improved the book design but also gave new topics to the artists. However, we do not know their names. While the engravers left their monograms on the copperplates, the artists who created woodcuts never signed them. The first to sign all of his works, whether woodcuts or copperplate engravings, was Albrecht Dürer.

The 15th-century printed book was preceded not only by the block books, but also by the magnificent manuscripts. The structure of the book was established already in the Middle Ages. It started with a cover, followed by the front page, then by the pages with text and illustrations (the first page started with an indent); the pages were decorated with headpieces and colophons. The printed books also had the familiar structure. It was considered very important to choose well the format of the book and the size of the illustrations, to insert the images in the text well – all this permitted to create a perfectly beautiful piece. 15th-century publications are real masterpieces so we can be sure that the problems were successfully solved in many different ways. Ulm, Mainz, Strasburg, Basel and Nuremberg were among the greatest centres of printing in Germany. More than two hundred illustrated books were published in just twenty years only in Nuremberg.

It was in the typographies of Ulm that the book illustrations became more important than just printed images and the artist became a book designer. The Ulm books have outline pictures with simple and rustic images, very beautifully arranged in the text. An example is a book of Aesop’s Fables published in 1475. The publication of Terence’s Eunuchus in 1486 was elegant and laconic. The artist, like a stage director, turned every illustration into a stage, with the characters, graceful and elegant, looking like actors surrounded by magnificent scenery.

In 1486, Peregrinatio in terram sanctam by Bernhard von Breidenbach was published in Mainz. The editor and artist was probably Erhard Reuwich who accompanied the author of the book during his long journey in different countries. That is why the book includes plenty of illustrations with the views of German and Italian cities. Those topographical images preceded the city views of Schedel’s World Chronicle created by Michael Wolgemut and published in 1493. In every landscape shown from a bird’s-eye view the artist depicted monuments of architecture, landmarks and specific features of local people. The woodcuts are very different in style from those of Ulm. The outlines are almost absent, but there are many short strokes, rendering the wavy surface of the water, sculptural details of the buildings, small groups or single human figures. A meticulous, thorough work can be explained by an influence of copperplate engraving. It is evident that the woodcutters of the late 15th century were acquainted with the creations of the engravers.

In 15th century, Nuremberg was one of the most important German centres of printing and humanism. The city traded with Italy. Many books by ancient and modern Italian authors came to Nuremberg; the Italian art was well-known here. In Nuremberg, there was an important circle of humanists and a famous printing house of Anton Koberger, Albrecht Dürer’s godfather. In 1493, among other editions, Koberger published the World Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, a Nuremberg doctor and traveller. It encompassed the history of the mankind from the Creation of the World till the year 1492. This 15th-century encyclopedia had more than 1800 illustrations, full-page and small ones. To make the images of saints, prophets, scholars, philosophers, poets, priests, cardinals, scenes from the Bible, city views and astronomic phenomena, almost the whole Michael Wolgemut’s workshop was mobilized (Wolgemut was the leading painter of Nuremberg and it was during this time that he had Albrecht Dürer as an apprentice). In these illustrations, one may find different approaches and traditions, rich fantasy and evident borrowings, vivid images and stiff iconographic scenes. Such a mixture was typical of 15th-century Germany where the Renaissance features were combined with medieval traditions.

In the same year 1493 in Basel, a city not inferior to Nuremberg in quantity of books printed, The Book of the Knight of the Tower was published. It had a great number of small, almost square prints from woodcuts, with free and easy drawings. If we compare the editions of different years, the increase of drawing and carving skills becomes evident: not only the drawings were of greater quality, but the carvers learned how to keep the easiness of a drawing in a woodcut.

In 1494 in Basel Das Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant was published. It is one of the most beautiful, elegant and harmonic editions of the 15th century. The illustrations are in the middle of the page, with text above and below. On the margins there are vertical ornamental stripes made of the images of plants, birds and animals, with figures of men of motley in fool’s caps.

These two editions are probably connected with Albrecht Dürer: during his student journey he visited Basel and he may have participated in preparing these two books. Not only they start a new stage in the development of the book illustration, but in the development of the woodcut itself. Dürer’s work is a special period in the history of German master prints; it is already a part of the 16th century.

While the artistic language of the 15th-century woodcuts was laconic and generalized, with thick outlines, the copperplate engravings had thin lines and a great variety of strokes permitting to convey the tonal gradation. The copperplate engraving was fifty years younger than xylography. It emerged in the first half of the 15th century in the workshops of the goldsmiths. The latter, to check the images engraved on silver or golden plates, made impressions on paper. The copperplate engraving is an intaglio printing technique. The lines of the drawing are carved in the plate, the ink is put inside the grooves with the help of a wad, and then the remains of the ink are wiped off the surface of the plate. The polished plate is covered with a humid sheet of paper and the image is printed under a very high pressure, with the help of rollers of a printing press. At first, copper plates were used, giving the name to the technique.

The copperplate engraving is a labour-consuming technique that needs a great professionalism. An engraver needed to have a great knowledge of technique and a real mastery. He had to work slowly, minutely and carefully because it was impossible to make essential corrections. First copperplate engravings were created by goldsmiths, skilled and with a good artistic taste. Their works attired the attention of professional artists, connoisseurs, amateurs and clerics.

In 15th-century copperplate engravings the religious topics existed alongside worldly ones. First engravings, similarly to first woodcuts, were probably the playing cards. Other widespread topics include chivalry scenes, tournaments, battles and the so-called ‘Gardens of Love’. The ornaments, alphabets, jewellery, Church vessels and ‘Gardens of Love’ are recurrent in the works of almost any 15th-century artist. The ornaments and alphabets were published in albums and served to teach future artists and to help painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, engravers and monk calligraphers.

From the point of view of style, early German copperplate engravings can be divided into two groups. That means there were two schools or two centres of engraving in Germany. Firstly, the South, the cities of Upper and Middle Rhine where the printing press came around 1430s and where the greatest 15th-century masters of engraving worked: Master of the Playing Cards, Master E. S. and Martin Schongauer. The other centre was the North where the emergence and the development of the engraving reflected the events in the South and in the Netherlands. In most cases, Northern masters just copied the engravings by the Master E. S. and Martin Schongauer. These two artists were the most influential in the development of engraving in Germany, laying the foundation of its spectacular progress in the next century. The works by the Master of Playing Cards, the Master E. S. and Martin Schongauer are three stages of development of the engraving. The range of topics becomes wider; the emphases change; the technique evolves, permitting to solve more and more sophisticated problems.

Unfortunately, in the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts there are no prints by the Master of the Playing Cards or the Master E. S. Both were silversmiths brought up on medieval chivalric culture. Both paid much attention to the stories from the tales of chivalry of the Late Middle Ages.

They lived in the same century yet the difference between their works is great. The Master of Playing Cards was especially active in 1440s–1450s; he made series of playing cards with magnificent depictions of animals, birds, flowers, ladies and cavaliers. He made only a few religious compositions.

The engravings of the Master E. S. are already dedicated to an incredible range of topics. The secular topics are more numerous, the number of compositions and the number of copies have increased. He depicted a greater number of religious stories. It is thanks to the Master E. S. that the engraving started to come closer to the other arts: he created series of saints and apostles as models for sculptors, series of alphabets for calligraphers. The Master E. S. was the most prolific 15th-century engraver. He authored about 317 plates (to only 117 plates ascribed to Martin Schongauer). The Master E. S. added new topics, often using the artistic works of his contemporaries. He could borrow scenes from paintings by Dirk Bouts and Rogier van der Weyden for his engravings. Nevertheless, he created his own style in engraving. While his predecessors created static compositions made of single figures, structures made by the Master E. S. were much more complicated. In his engravings, a landscape or an architectural environment became a background for the characters living and acting there; he tried to diversify the movement, depicting it from different angles.

The early engravers worked on a two-dimensional space of the metal plate, decorating its surface as a goldsmith or a silversmith would do. The image was constructed from below upwards and from left to right, with many decorative elements. But there are differences in the manner of Schongauer’s predecessors. The Master of Playing Cards used a thin soft line to delineate the outline of the figure. Incisions he used replaced strokes and helped to allude at the shadows. Thanks to the incisions, the artist could achieve a certain roundness of shapes. But the plate was always ornamental because of the flowers that could decorate the clothes, coming down in a calm, fluid rhythm or (presented as a garden) serve as a background.

For the Master E. S. the line was the main element of the structure. The line twines everywhere in his plates, creating corners and circles, conveying a restless, almost a dancing rhythm to his images. There are no sharp gradations of black and white, the line creating a transparent silvery calligraphic pattern on the sheet. But the Master E. S. does not use incisions, adding various strokes instead. He uses them in a very delicate way, moving towards the shading.

Despite all the technical innovations, the engravings by the Master E. S. are greatly linked to the medieval traditions. He puts his characters into natural surroundings (a landscape, a home interior) not because he wishes to get to know and to convey his knowledge of the world but because he loves depicting different objects, flowers, animals: they have a life of their own in his engravings, creating a decorative background.

Martin Schongauer, an artist belonging to the last, third generation of 15th-century engravers, tried to find a link between the human being and his environment. Schongauer started engraving in the last third of 15th century, when he was already a highly professional painter. But he was son of a goldsmith so he knew the engraving well.

In 1470s, the copperplate engraving in Germany passed from goldsmiths and silversmiths to painters. But to learn the engraving, the painters such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer still studied from goldsmiths.

In the end of 15th century, in Germany where the Reformation and the Peasant War were ripening, the religious subjects became the most important for many engravers. The manner of engraving also changed. While the compositions by the Master E. S. were clear and light, the works by Martin Schongauer were complex and expressive. The Great Bearing of the Cross is one of the main achievements of Schongauer the engraver, the largest of his works and the only 15th-century engraving that has such a range of characters, such intensity of action and of human feelings. It is a detailed story of the tragic way of Christ to the Mount Calvary. The figure of Christ, almost twice as large as the figures of other people, is depicted in the middle of a great procession. Many other characters are forming separate groups around him, showing all the variety of human feelings: compassion and cruelty, indifference and anger, grief and joy. The depiction is very naturalistic, which was new for the art of engraving.

Schongauer aspired to create integral and perfect images; his images always have considered and independent compositions. The main element of his structures is an outline and a stroke permitting to depict the volume. For the first time in engraving the strokes became really diversified. Schongauer could use parallel or intersecting strokes; making them denser or rarer, deeper or less deep, the artist could achieve a different level of intensity. That helped him to create tone effects and three-dimensioned figures. He also tried to create a three-dimensioned composition but he did not know the rules of perspective. That is why the figures in his engravings are piled up, the outlines are sharp and the source of light is lacking.

In the Dormition of the Holy Virgin the richness of strokes creates a tonal diversity. The clothes may seem dark or bright. But the abundance of florid intricate lines shows that Schongauer could not get rid of medieval heritage. The outlines are more important than the strokes which, despite their richness, do not always correspond to the volume.

In the second half of 15th century, for the first time, the engravers started making genre pictures, with images of peasants. Schongauer’s composition Peasant family going to market is based on the iconography of Flight into Egypt. For the first time peasants became the characters of the engraving, with all the peculiarities of their type, clothes and behaviour. The landscape conveyed a special charm and a feeling of naturalness to the scene.

Schongauer was the first who tried to express his observations of people and nature in engraving, who tried to make the image more plastic. Only Albrecht Dürer managed to achieve these goals in his copperplate engravings. Dürer appreciated Schongauer very much and stayed under the influence of his art. Not having met him in his lifetime, Dürer studied thoroughly his plates in Colmar, used some of his compositions while working on his own creations. But if Dürer carried on Schongauer’s traditions, he managed to achieve successes that have never been surpassed.