An exhibition of 65 engravings by a group of early German and Netherlandish artists who transformed engraving from a goldsmith’s craft into a major art form is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 25, 2003. The Art of the Burin: Engraving in Northern Europe in the Age of Dürer surveys the rapid rise of the new medium during the years between 1450 and 1550, a tumultuous period distinguished by a spiritual and intellectual revolution, brought about by the invention of moveable type, which fueled the growth of Renaissance Humanism and the Protestant Reformation.
Drawn largely from the Museum’s renowned collection of prints, the exhibition is organized into thematic sections ranging from enchanting scenes of courtly love to macabre figures of death, and from inspiring religious images to ingenious classical subjects. Nearly a third of the works are by the greatest artist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Among them are his three famous master prints of 1513-14, representing Saint Jerome in his Study, the Knight, Death and the Devil, and the enigmatic Melencolia I. Also included is Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504), which was inspired by the recent excavation in Rome of great classical marbles, the Medici Venus and Apollo Belvedere.
Engraving, a meticulous printmaking technique, was first developed in the mid- 1400s, when medieval goldsmiths put the burin (a V-tipped gouging tool) to new use, incising into metal surfaces exquisitely detailed images that could be inked and printed on paper. Far more delicate than the more common woodcuts, engravings were soon avidly sought after and carefully preserved for their combination of exacting beauty and engaging content. This exhibition begins around 1450 with prints by the artist known as the Master ES (active 1450-1467), one of the many early craftsman-engravers known only by their initials, and culminates a century later in the tiny, jewel-like engravings of Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Heinrich Aldegrever (1502-1555/61).
The prints on view reflect broad changes that took place in Europe between 1450 and 1550. Just as the medieval world was thoroughly transformed by the spread of Renaissance Humanism, so the gothic demons engraved by Martin Schongauer (1440- 1491) gave way to the classical nudes of Dürer’s Adam and Eve. "These ingenious engravings express the spirit of a remarkable age, embodying the traditional and the new, the commonplace and the marvelous," said William Breazeale, the Margaret R. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. "Their combination of engaging subjects with virtuoso technique shows the refined new medium at its best."
In addition to the works by Dürer, highlights include a rare early print of about 1450 by the Master ES, Triumph over All Temptations, an illustration from a medieval devotional book, The Art of Dying. Also included is the earliest known engraved portrait, by Master ES's leading student Israhel van Meckenem (1440/45-1503). His 1490 Self- Portrait with his Wife, Ida is a recent gift to the Museum and one of only six known impressions. A masterpiece of engraving is The Dance of Saint Mary Magdalen (1519) by Lucas van Leyden (1489/94-1533), Dürer’s younger rival. The silvery tonality of the Museum’s exceptionally fine impression is a major achievement of the engraver’s art. The gallery is equipped with magnifying glasses to enable close viewing. The Art of the Burin: Engraving in Northern Europe in the Age of Dürer is organized by William Breazeale with John Ittmann, Curator of Prints. The exhibition is in on view in the Stieglitz Gallery, ground floor.