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The fantastic alphabet: masterpieces of the late Gothic period at the exhibition in Munich

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New Pinakothek, an art museum in Munich, offers a new unique collection of engravings of the XV century The Fantastic Alphabet: Master E.S. Do not miss an opportunity to discover the oeuvre of the unidentified German engraver, goldsmith, and printmaker of the late Gothic period and make a mysterious trip in the world of metamorphoses with knightly tournaments, charming ladies, sinned monks, wrigglers, fools, dragons, salamanders and chimeras.
The gem of the exhibition is a series of 23 prints depicting 23 letters of the fantastic alphabet by Master E.S. (Master ES, 1420 — 1468). This unique collection of paper prints of the XIV century is the only collection in the world owned by the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung Munich (National Collection of graphic arts in Munich).
Master E.S., the Letter e, copper plate engraving, 1466
Master E.S., the Letter f, 1466, copper plate engraving, 140×107 mm,
© Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München
The identity of Master E.S., who created the Fantastic Alphabet, remains mystery. Though, regardless that the art experts rank him as the most important German engraver of the Late Gothic period.
The name Master E.S. assigned to the artist was derived from his monograms on a few prints bearing the letters E.S. Stylistic characteristics of the German engraver strongly suggest that he lived and worked in the Upper Rhine region and northern Switzerland in the mid XV century. The researchers of his oeuvre supposed that the anonymous master died shortly after he finished his Fantastic Alphabet. The most creative period of the artist is dated from 1450 to 1467.

More than 300 copper plate engravings by Master E.S. survive and 200 more could be reconstructed based on copies of prints. The stylistics of his artworks is grounded on the Late Gothic traditions. The art experts mention the influence of Konrad Witz, an artist, and sculptors Nikolaus Gerhaert and Master of the Karlsruhe Passion on the German engraver’s artworks.

At the same time the whimsical and ingenious compositions with a lot of figures by Master E.S. powerfully boosted sculpture art on both sides of the Alps. The artist introduced his peculiar features in the copper plate engraving technique. With his unique parallel hatches Master E.S. modeled shadows and rhythm of movement and managed to create a special velvet effect in his prints.

Master E. S. The Letter d, 1466, copper plate engraving

The Fantastic Alphabet consists of 23 single sheets of Gothic minuscules (lower-case letters) revealing a stunning event for its time.
The artist worked on the Alphabet in 1466−1467, which was based on the Bohemian alphabet of around 1400. Some letters had been copied faithfully and others completely redesigned in his own manner.
The anonymous artist mockingly presented monks and nuns in their hypocritical mendaciousness. Ottoman Turks armed to the teeth represent the sinister allure. Peasants and members of the lower classes were depicted like "wild men" living by instincts and fighting each other. Master E.S. also printed fools, popular medieval images, warning of the dangers of bodily lusts.
We suddenly witness the medieval world offered us with artistic perfection by a unique artist of extraordinary genius. Both modern surrealist painter and a science fiction writer could envy a luxuriant imaginative power of the medieval Master.
Master E. S, the Letter q, copper plate engraving, 1466
Master E.S.. The letter "h"
Master E.S.. The letter "r"
  • Master E. S. The Letter h, 1466, copper plate engraving
  • Master E. S. The Letter r, 1466, copper plate engraving
Master E.S., The Letter s, 1466
Inventing sophisticated compositions the artist acrobatically entwined human and animal figures and mythical creatures. Their combinations create fascinating silhouettes of the letters of the whimsical fantastic alphabet designed by Master E.S.
Master E.S.. The letter "c"
  • Master E. S. The Letter x, 1466, copper plate engraving, 152 x 105 mm © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München
  • Master E. S. The Letter c, 1466, copper plate engraving
  • Master E. S. The Letter o, 1466, copper plate engraving, 140 x 100 mm © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München
  • Master E. S. The Letter k, 1466, copper plate engraving
At first glance the Fantastic Alphabet appears to be a drollery and jest of the artist. By no means should these letters be seen as mere humorous imagery. The artist told his late medieval viewers about the conflict between good and evil and his contemporaries could easily read those symbols.
  • Master E. S. The Letter y, 1466, copper plate engraving
  • Master E. S. The Letter p, 1466, copper plate engraving
We can only speculate about the intended audience of the artist. The anticlerical themes the artist addressed to could not be openly demonstrated. So, Master E.S. likely worked for an intellectual urban audience able to enjoy the prints, which simultaneously instruct and dazzle the viewer with their aesthetic allure.
Master E. S. The Letter g, 1466, copperplate engraving, 152×134 mm
© Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München
Master E. S. The Letter v, 1466, copper plate engraving
Diversity of themes
of the German printmaker was unique for his time.
Master E.S.. The Madonna of the rosary, standing on a Crescent moon

Master also addressed to religious themes in his oeuvre including scenes out of the Books of the Old and the New Covenant, the Passion of Christ, life of the Holy Virgin and Christ’s disciples as well as legends about saints.

At the same time the German artist depicted the everyday life in his prints and engravings; numerous paper prints with courtly scenes of erotic nature survived. The artist often hinted at carnal delights so unveiled for his contemporaries.


Master E. S. The Holy Virgin of the Rosary Standing on Crescent Moon, second half of the XV century, engraving

Erotic series by Master is called Small Gardens of Love. One engraving of the series was known to be kept in the collection of Hartmann Schedel, a doctor, historian and humanitarian from Nuremberg (1440 — 1514). This fact also proves the idea that collectors and purchasers of such kind of graphic art were educated and intellectual persons. The theme of garden was very popular in the Middle Ages and related to pleasures and delights; remember Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Master E. S. The Queen of Hearts. The Playing Card, engraving, second half of XV century

In this piece of news the information is used from press release of the Exhibition, which finished on October 6, 2016, at the Pinakothek der Moderne Munich. The central illustration: Master E.S., The Letter m, 1466, copper plate engraving. © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München
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