Ursula Weekes’s book on early Northern engravings focuses on the ambit of a particular printmaker, the Master of the Berlin Passion. This fine study does not attempt to treat all prints by the Master and his circle with an equal hand, but rather focuses keenly on a group of small religious engravings, struck specifically for inclusion in illustrated para-liturgical manuscripts. By studying these prints within their manuscript context, Weekes has marshalled a significant amount of evidence that helps clarify issues regarding the Master: his identity, geographic location, and the nature of his work. She then proceeds to discuss a particular sector of the print-viewing public of the mid to late fifteenth century.
The first half of Weekes’s text carefully parses the information pertaining to the Master of the Berlin Passion and his circle. Though the identity of the master remains unknown, the author has been able to remove an old misconception that he was Israhel van Meckenem’s father. Weekes finds additional evidence to support earlier attempts to situate the master in the Duchy of Cleves, near Marienfrede. Perhaps most important for her thesis is her suggestion that the master only engraved plates in discrete phases, at first to augment his regular income as a goldsmith. During his first “phase” the Berlin Passion Master seems to have specifically targeted his engravings at the manuscript trade, which was evolving in response to the rising popularity of private devotion and the increased demand for manuscripts with para-liturgical prayer cycles. Having developed a particular market for religious prints as illustrations in such manuscripts, the Master of the Berlin Passion moved to other engraved themes aimed at different markets, and left the book trade to a wider circle of engravers to manipulate and exploit. And exploit it they did, producing at least five different versions of the master’s Life of Christseries for sale to the makers of manuscripts.
Weekes maintains that this “circle,”e which she refers to as the St. Erasmus Masters, was situated elsewhere, around Cologne, and did not collaborate directly with the Master of the Berlin Passion. Instead the St. Erasmus Masters only copied the master’s designs and perhaps even acquired his plates, and printed all these plates on bifolia, leaving portions of the sheet blank. These were not bespoke works, however they were sold to makers and decorators of books, who perhaps stockpiled prints for unforeseen future projects. Those in the manuscript trade would then assemble the bifolia and add text around the images, or clip images from the larger sheets and set them into the spaces left in their manuscripts. Either way, the manuscript makers did so without regard to artistic authorship of the print or to whether the print was an engraving or a metalcut. This is fascinating stuff indeed: the use of this corpus of prints by manuscript makers suggests the possibility of texts being selected and scribed based on a pre-existing cache of prints; Weekes even calls these sets of printed bifolia “ illuminated manuscript ‘kits’.” (88) She convincingly suggests that the four St. Erasmus Masters worked together as a cooperative business venture, making prints quickly and inexpensively for the evolving illustrated book trade, which welcomed shortcuts to speed production.
In the second half of the text, Weekes examines those manuscripts with inset prints, and acknowledges the work of Peter Schmidt, who studied a similar phenomenon in southern Germany. Like Schmidt she finds that most of these manuscripts can be traced to female owners – para-liturgical prayer books for nuns, Books of Hours for upper-middle class laity – and even suggests that the manuscript makers may have been nuns themselves. In this regard, Weekes’s text effectively contributes to the growing field of women’s spirituality.
In her introduction Weekes states that these manuscripts “provide an unparalleled opportunity to study the historical context in which certain types of engravings and metalcuts from this region were used during the fifteenth century,” (11) and offer evidence for “why the Master of the Berlin Passion and his circle made engravings and metalcuts; what their intentions were, who their public were, and what meanings contemporaries invested in their prints.” (19) Weekes is successful in much of this endeavor; however, I think she might have gone further with her last goal, analyzing the meanings invested in the images by their viewers. For example, Chapter 3 discusses a “vernacular prayer book for the feasts of the church year” (102) that was probably owned by a nun in the Convent of St. Catharina Mariendaal at Venlo, and perhaps produced in the nearby Convent of St. Andreas at Sonsbeck by Xanten (Paris, Bibliothèque National, Cabinet des Étampes, Rés EA 6). Weekes concludes her analysis of the manuscript with a discussion of how nuns used para-liturgical books, and how the organization of the book based on the liturgical calendar might have divorced the images from their narrative sequence, and even associated them with the passing of time. This is all well and good, but it would have been illuminating for the relation between user and image to be further explored, using the specific information available in the devotional text of the manuscript.
The final chapter of Early Engravers and their Public presents a similar problem. This chapter focuses on a Book of Hours with prints that have been stitched into place instead of glued down (Vienna ÖNB, series nova 12715). While “women living a religious life in enclosure were a significant audience for engravings by the Master of the Berlin Passion and the St. Erasmus Masters” (166), internal evidence suggests male ownership of series nova 12715, unlike most of the other manuscripts in this study. It is particularly intriguing that one of the few manuscripts with inset prints to belong to a man would also have such an obvious sign of a woman’s presence in the stitching around the devotional image. Weekes examines how this stitched decoration might be seen as a symbol of women’s human labor as spiritual devotion (labora and ora), and how the manuscript may have been gifted by a nun to one of her monastic governors as a token of spiritual love. She also discusses how the green and red silk thread might be seen as symbols of Christ’s human and divine natures (labora and ora again? Weekes doesn’t say), and how stitching the prints in place may have evoked other objects stitched into manuscripts, in particular pilgrimage mementoes. This latter aspect may have helped the prints function as part of the phenomena of “mental pilgrimages,” as discussed by Kathryn Rudy and others, and indeed Weekes notes that the manuscript offers a surprisingly large number of indulgences. If Weekes is correct – and I think there is good reason to believe she is – then the monk who owned this manuscript must have been aware he was using “a woman’s book” for his devotions. Certainly a study claiming that “[t]he religious aspirations of women were, it appears, of central importance when it came to developing the role of engravings in late medieval devotional practice” (143) should speculate further on what it means when a man undertakes that same practice.
These criticisms are minor; indeed this study has much to recommend it – the result of thorough and commendable research into the relationship between images and texts. It offers a wealth of thought provoking ideas about the production, marketing, and reception of prints in the fifteenth century, and would be a valuable addition to any print scholar’s collection. It includes a thorough catalogue of the manuscripts discussed in the text; I was particularly impressed by the comparative tables that precede the color plates. Indeed this inventive use of spread-sheet technology might be adopted by other scholars wrestling with an unwieldy amount of comparative visual material.