(active 1450-1467 Upper Rhine)

Letter N from the Fantastic Alphabet

Engraving, 138 x 170 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Master E S's style is far more sophisticated than the Master of the Playing Cards' who was active in the same period in the Upper Rhine, too. Besides a developed spatial stage, the artist used a greater diversity of lines. His figures are defined by crisp contours. Through hatched and cross-hatched shadows, he could imply light shining from the side.

Some of Master E S's prints served as patterns or models for other artists. The prints of a monstrance or of foliate ornaments would have appealed to goldsmiths and woodworkers, among others. His Fantastic Alphabet, either intended as exercises in pictorial creativity or designs for illuminators and book publishers, reveals his playful wit. Twenty-three letters in Gothic minuscule or lower case are formed from interlocking humans, animals and birds. This series mixes the elaborate letters common to medieval manuscripts with the drolleries typically found in marginalia or interdictor on choir stalls. The letter N satirizes the gluttony and lust of lower clergy. The three monks on the left wear fool's bells. The emphasis upon the full purse, the empty wine flagon and exposed genitals reveals their sinful preoccupations. Opposite, a woman, perhaps a concubine, spanks the crouching monk, who in turn wrestles with a bird that has seized his tongue. Above a fifth monk adjusts his spectacles as if to get a better view. Folly encompasses all five of the senses here.