Martin Schongauer was the first northern printmaker whose work was widely known in Italy and Spain as well as Germany and the Netherlands. Painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, and other printmakers imitated and copied his work. In 1492 the young Albrecht Dürer traveled as a journeyman to Schongauer’s studio, unaware that the elder man had died the previous year.
Schongauer trained primarily as a painter, but he learned metalwork and engraving from his father, Caspar Schongauer, who was a goldsmith. Martin Schongauer became the first peintre-graveur, an artist trained in composition, drawing, form, and color who chose printmaking as his principal medium of expression. He was greatly admired for his skill with an engraver’s burin, a steel-shafted tool with two cutting edges on its diamond-shaped tip, and for his consistently fine printing.
"Christ Bearing His Cross" is a highly complex composition. Experts suggest that the work's oblong shape reflects a lost mural painting by Jan van Eyck or one of his followers. The copper plate, which was the largest engraved at the time of its execution, shows a great procession moving across the rough landscape; the fallen Christ, surrounded by a crowd of thugs and tormentors, is at the center. It is the final, grandest example of Schongauer's formal pictorial style.
The engraving is signed with the initials M and S, separated by a goldsmith-like hallmark composed of a cross and a crescent.