ISRAHEL VAN MECKENEM

ca. 1440-45 - Bocholt 1503

 

Die Messe des heiligen Gregor – The Mass of St. Gregory


engraving; 204 x 143 mm (8 x 5 ⅝ inches)

Lehrs and Hollstein 352 second (final) state; Geisberg 289

PROVENANCE
Count Joachim IV von Maltzan of Militsch, Silesia (cf. Lugt 3024a)
Richard Zinser, Forest Hills, N.Y. (not stamped)
N.G. Stogdon, Catalogue 11: Early Northern Engravings, Middle Chinnock, Somerset 1998, no. 18
private collection

LITERATURE
Achim Riether, Israhel van Meckenem (um 1440/45–1503). Kupferstiche – Der Münchner Bestand,
exhibition catalogue, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, 2006, p. 246, no. 96

Very rare; Lehrs lists merely eight impressions (including this one), all of them of the second state with the exception of the one in Berlin (acquired from C.G. Boerner in 1879). At least three of the known impressions are damaged and/or missing the indulgence text below. Lehrs further notes that “die meisten Exemplare grau gedruckt sind” (the printing of most of the impressions is gray), something that truly cannot be said about the Maltzan impression offered here; indeed, only the impression in Aschaffenburg appears to be comparable in quality to this one (ill. in Riether, p. 145). Furthermore, as N.G. Stogdon has pointed out in his catalogue, there is no impression in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris (which instead owns two impressions of Lehrs 351, a close variant of this print), reducing the surviving impressions to seven.

Geisberg counts this print among Van Meckenem’s later group of copies after the Master E.S. While there is no surviving print by the Master E.S. depicting the Mass of St. Gregory, the elegantly dressed youth carrying a fur hat on his back in the background copies the figure of the Wappen Ober (Lehrs 234) in the latter’s playing cards.

St. Gregory was Pope Gregory I (ca. 540–604) to whom Christ as Man of Sorrows appeared while he was celebrating mass. It visualizes the paradigmatic core of the Eucharist: the transubstantiation of the host into the body of Christ. As a subject of paintings, miniatures, and prints it became highly popular during the fifteenth century and was also endowed to grant an indulgence. Israhel van Meckenem alone made at least seven prints depicting the scene (Lehrs 348–354) and another three are most likely copies or emulations of his work de-attributed by recent scholarship (Lehrs 345–347). After the turn of the century, however, the wide dissemination of depictions of this miracle also exposed the precarious relationship between Christ and the pope inherent in the scene. One might even argue that later anti-papal propaganda that contrasted the luxurious ways of papal Rome with the modesty of Christ’s life is already prefigured in the iconographic model of Gregory’s mass: the Savior appears, his body naked and ravaged, amongst the assembled clergy dressed in their lavish vestments.

In many depictions Christ is shown frontally in half-length, his arms crossed in front of his body—as he appears in the Byzantine mosaic icon above the Jerusalem altar in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome that was venerated as the very image Pope Gregory had made in commemoration. In this version by Van Meckenem, however, Christ is a small figure—a Schmerzensmännchen (a tiny Man of Sorrows, to use Christine Göttler’s witty phrasing) rather than a somber imago pietatis. The figure balances atop an elaborate heraldic device consisting of a shield (with sarcophagus, shroud, and cross) and a helmet crowned with thorns and is further flanked by the lance and the sponge soaked in vinegar (the remaining arma Christi are lined up along the back wall that encloses the space). As Göttler observes of the scene in this print, the precise moment it describes is not determinable. In contrast to canonical depictions of the event, no mass is celebrated here. The paten (the plate that is supposed to bear the host) is half-pushed underneath the corporal (the cloth on top of the altar) and the candle is not lit. The vision of Christ experienced by Gregory has become a theatrical machine that is more likely to astonish through its elaborate heraldic appearance than to liberate the faithful from their religious doubts (cf. Göttler in cat. Vienna, p. 282). At the same time, the depiction of the scene in a print that is ideally suited for private devotion ultimately enables its owner to bring the papal mass into his or her own home (cf. Gerhard Wolf in cat. Vienna).

FURTHER LITERATURE
Christoph Geissmar-Brandi and Eleonora Louis (eds.), Glaube Hoffnung Liebe Tod, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Wien/Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, 1995–96; see here the essays by Gerhard Wolf, “Die Papstmesse in der Wohnstube,” pp. 277–279, and Christine Göttler, “Deus ex machina,” pp. 280–287