The First Mirror in Oil

Some paintings are so incredibly famous, so well-researched and described from all the possible sides and angles, that at the very moment when you think to write somethings about them your thoughts are petrified.

What can I say about about Mona Lisa? or the Black Square, for example?  Isn’t all said already many times?What else can you add to these volumes?  It seems to be futile to even think about writing something original about these art-blockbusters.  The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck is definitely one of such works.

The good side of such hyper-popularity is that at least I don’t have to repeat all the basic and well-known facts (I keep encountering a lot of blogs whose authors sedulously copy-paste these factoids from the wikipedia articles.) I don’t want to follow this suite here, and will only write the stuff related to my ‘mirror theme’ – read wikipedia yourself for the rest!

What the article in wikipedia doesn’t say though, is the fact that the van Eyck’s double portrait is perhaps the very first ‘true’ painting of a glass mirror in the European history (when saying ‘true’ painting I mean that it’s not a book illustration, a tapestry, or a fresco).

Van Eyck painted this portrait in Bruges circa 1434, at the times when he was already a very famous master, the court painter even. To commission the work of such a master was not cheap, but allegedly Giovanni Arnolfini, a successful merchant of Italian origin, could afford it. His Italian origin may also explain the appearance of the mirror. It’s very big by the standards of the time, and was most likely brought from Italy where it had been made by one of the Venetian craftsmen [NB: After few years of studying this topic I wouldn’t make such bold statements anymore, as apparently the Flemish craftsmen could make no less impressive glass mirrors than the Venetians; circa 2013].

The painting is not very big by the contemporary standards (± 60 x 80cm), and the mirror is only about 10 cm in diameter (its glass surface is even smaller, around 5cm in diameter).  It ‘reality’ the mirror’s frame should have be around 80cm in diameter, and its glass part about 40cm, which was pretty colossal for that time (to the extent that it is now believed that van Eyck had artificially enlarged the mirror, to please its customer, perhaps).

The Arnolfini mirror is a convex one (they were not able to make flat mirrors yet); because of its frontal display, we don’t see the curvy surface, but the reflection has a typical distorted shape.

Its frame is exquisitely designed and has a shape of ten-arrow star (reference to the Sun, perhaps?) It depicts the ten scenes of the Passion, including the one with the Crucifixion on the top, the most sacral theme in Christianity.  This itself makes the mirror (and the painting) unique: there are very few works in European art where mirrors would border with anything religious [NB. Ah, again, I would’t say so after few years of studies; but let these lines stay, even if to make me smile in the future].  Soon after the creation of this work, somewhere from the end of 15th century onward, such a neighbourhood might be easily considered blasphemous, with all the nasty consequences for both the author and the owners. But these times are not there yet, and the painting is apparently seen as a great masterpiece by the contemporaries.

Here van Eyck also introduces the theme that I will be calling the ‘Far Side of the Moon‘: using the ‘mirror’, he is able to show on one painting both the font and the back sides of the figures, which otherwise can not be seen. This methods will be lately used quite widely, but for that time was absolutely novel.

At the same time we see here another technique, yet another way of making the mirror ‘work’ in the painting; it shows us something outside of the frame, something (or in this case somebody) who is not present in the depicted scene, but what we can now see, thanks to the mirror.

In addition to the two backs, or Arnolfini and his wide, we also see two figures entering the door; they should be visible to the couple in ‘real life’, i.e., in the imaginary space of the painting. It’s believed that the figure  wearing red is the artist himself, although he doesn’t have an easel.

I am tempted to call this method ‘See the Unicorn?‘  It demonstrates a very sophisticated ‘perception management’ of the viewer by the master: we are forced to imagine a much larger and more complex scene, beyond what is just shown on the canvas (or the oak panel, in this case).

In fact, the approach used by van Eyck is even more complex, it is a combination of both methods, Far Side of the Moon and See the Unicorn.

PS: Few days later I wrote another posting about this work, based on the book by Edwin Hall – see The Arnolfini Betrothal, or Trust No One.


P…PS: The piece was written as the very first stub, a mere notice for future research. The problem is that I never returned and re-wrote the text about Arnolfini Portrait after, although I did explore the topics of similar mirrors extensively. By now (as of 2014) I believe that this was not a mirror, of course, but rather an important religions artifact, a sort of icon that they used back then. Later in this blog I wrote numerous times about this issue (I think that the posting titled 1002 virgins and their (alleged) mirrors could be a good starting point to read ). I even made a mini-book on the matter (the first version was presented here, and later I made a more solid piece.)

2 thoughts on “The First Mirror in Oil

  1. A very good read, I could never get enough of Arnolfini details 🙂

    I scanned the van Haecht detail of Jan van Eyck’s “Woman at the Toilet” for you from

    ELISABETH DHANENS. Hubert und Jan van Eyck. Karl Robert Langewiesche Nachfolger, Königstein im Taunus 1980

    I’s an entire A4+ page in the book; to see it in full 2500×3500 size in the browser first click “zoom” then right-click and choose “open image in new tab” (I’m working in Google Chrome)

    Also here’s the file for direct download

    Hope it helps 😉

    • Thank you for your compliments, and sorry for the delay with replying; this blog is a bit abandoned lately, I am too busy with ‘other’ things irl.

      The image (link) would be great – until yesterday, that is 🙂 I got a huge, 100 Mb image from the museum itself; I can’t place it here in full, but will try to write about the key elements in more details, hopefully soon. Another reason to stay tuned 🙂

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