The Department of Drawings and Prints houses more than 1.2 million prints, dating from the Middle Ages through the present, and the collection is continually expanding. One recent and interesting addition is a rare print by the fifteenth-century German engraver and goldsmith Israhel van Meckenem depicting six religious scenes in roundels.
Van Meckenem's print is an engraving—an impression of a metal plate that has been incised with a burin, inked, and printed. It dates from about 1480 to 1490, and only a handful of impressions survive today. The print's rarity is due partly to its utilitarian purposes. It would have been used in workshops by goldsmiths and other craftsmen, who looked to prints for ideas for figural poses, pictorial compositions, and decorative motifs to include in their own works. Van Meckenem, himself a goldsmith, would have understood this market for prints well. No copies of these particular roundel designs by Van Meckenem survive in other media, but a lavish silver triptych in the Cloisters, engraved with designs that closely resemble prints by Martin Schongauer and other contemporaries of Van Meckenem, show how prints like Van Meckenem's would have supplied design ideas to craftsmen.
Manuscript illuminators also cut out and glued engraved roundels by Van Meckenem to the pages of religious books, and often colored them by hand. For this reason as well, very few uncut, intact sheets of roundels like the Metropolitan's survive.
Van Meckenem signed the roundel print with his first name, Israhel, at the bottom in florid font. Though signing one's work is common practice among many artists today, Van Meckenem's signature was an unprecedentedly specific annunciation of authorship for a print in the fifteenth century. Few fifteenth-century printmakers signed their work at all, and, before Van Meckenem, those that did used only their initials or symbols. The first engraver to add a full signature to his prints, Van Meckenem clearly understood the benefits of building name recognition among consumers. He signed his engraving of the Head of an Oriental, also in the Metropolitan's collection, with his full name and profession: "Israhel van Meckenem Goltsmit," and he signed his engraving of the Birth of the Virgin engraving "• Israhel • V • M •."
Ironically, even though Van Meckenem signed the roundel print, claiming credit for the design, he copied parts of it from prints by other artists, like the conversion of St. Paul scene in the middle right. Such copying is emblematic of Van Meckenem's approach to engraving. He was the first engraver to focus his career on reproducing the work of other famous printmakers, instead of inventing his own designs. This business model, which would be followed by countless printmakers in the future, made him the most prolific engraver of his generation, and no doubt one of the most profitable. He created more than six hundred prints in his lifetime—far more than any of his contemporaries.
In his reversed copy of Martin Schongauer's engraving of St. George and the Dragon, above, Van Meckenem even forged Schongauer's initials, presumably because he thought this would help the print sell.
In other instances, Van Meckenem copied only specific parts of other artists' prints. In his engraving of the Four Church Fathers, below, Van Meckenem selected four figures to copy from a larger composition by the engraver Master ES.
Van Meckenem's engraving of the Four Church Fathers probably served the same purpose as his roundel print—to supply ready-made motifs to other craftsmen.
The Metropolitan's newly acquired roundel print exemplifies Van Meckenem's enterprising approach to engraving, and is a prize example of this talented and trailblazing artist's work. It also serves as a reminder of one of engraving's fundamental and original purposes—to preserve and proliferate pictorial models.