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Engraved Images of Beauty and Grace
Saturday, November 01, 2008

At art museums everywhere, prim and elegantly posed subjects stare down at
their visitors through picture frames. If they were living rather than the
subjects of oil paintings, they would be admiring themselves.

The public gathers around them while unobtrusive engravings sit on the
side content with the secret of their own greatness.

Copper engravings peaked during the Northern Renaissance in Germany, first
by Martin Schongauer, and later by his talented student, Albrecht Dürer.
This art form spread just after the printing press was invented.

As prints are very portable and one copper plate can produce many
identical prints, artists used this effectively to earn a living. At the
same time, their value dropped with easy availability, and people often
forgot how much effort went into each piece.

Prints, although black and white, often hold more detail, require more
work, and command a greater presence than work done in oils. The wise and
Foolish Virgins series by Martin Schongauer shows a high level of

A celebrated German engraver, known as Bel Martino in Italy, Schongauer
raised engraving techniques to their highest level by expanding the range
of contrast and texture in his work.

According to Steve Bartrick’s Antique Prints and Maps, the artist uses a
burin (the first engraving tool used in the engraving process) to smooth,
then coat the copper plate with varnish, then carves out the composition
in a mirror image of the finished plate.

After carefully cutting in shading and detail, the artist smoothes out the
ridges caused by the incisions, heats, and covers the plate with ink.
Using dampened paper, he runs it through the printing press.

With this assembly-line process, one might expect artistic rubber stamps.
However, Schongauer achieved just the opposite. The Fourth Wise Virgin of
his Wise and Foolish Virgins series shows the depth and detail that set
the artist apart. As stated in NNDB: Tracking the Entire World, the
artist, with no breaks in line and using only a burin, made the hair-thin
lines swell up and thin down again, creating different shades and textures
in the copper to portray the intricate folds of the virgin’s dress.

With cross-hatching, Schongauer increased volume, giving the subject
greater volume and realism. He is the first artist ever to curve parallel
lines and develop techniques that produce deeper depressions in the copper
so that more prints can be made before the plates wear down.

A solemn and religious man by nature, Schngauer shunned displays of crude
humor that other engravers used in their work; he focused on the divine.
The religious subjects in his engravings taught Christian values.

This series portrays the Parable of the Ten Virgins told in the gospels.
This parable advises people to be ready to welcome God at any time. The
virgins, wise and foolish, await their spouse with the oil they carry
symbolizing faith.

Five wise virgins carry extra oil and can replenish their lantern to meet
their husband at midnight. The five foolish virgins, unable to obtain more
oil in time, are left to cry in the darkness.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many enjoy Schongauer’s work is his ability
to stay true to himself. He was swayed by the public’s desire for
something new, but instead used his skills to glorify God and teach later
generations universal truths with beauty and grace.

The subject’s expression is one of calm, womanly warmth, and gentleness—a
model for young women of how mature women should carry themselves.

Known as one of the greatest engravers in the history of art, Schongauer’s
legacy will continue on. Visitors to the British Museum can view many of
his prints which are signed M+S.

The next time you visit an art museum, pay a call to the small copper
engravings and allow them to tell you the story of their beauty and truth.

-By Jane Liu
Epoch Times Staff Jan 15, 2009
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