The Lamb and the Mirror

In the context of our ‘mirrors in art’ theme, Robert Campin is a typical example of ‘one-mirror man’. There is only one masterpiece known where he depicted a mirror (and even his authorship of this work, so called Werl Triptych, is still disputed, it’s often attributed to Rogier van der Weyden).

The central part of the triptych is missing, so we effectively have a diptych. The (convex) mirror is present on its left wing.


It is widely believed that the painting was influenced by the Arnolfini Family portrait by van Eyck, not only because of the central presence of the convex mirror, but also judging by the similarity of the light arrangements and various common compositional and symbolic elements ( the triptych was painted 1438, fours later after the work by van Eyck).

The mirror itself doesn’t have any religious themes in its design, but it reflects St.John the Baptist, and is placed above the Lamb (the symbol of Jesus).

Robert Campin is known, and widely appreciated, for his exquisite precision in depicting the details of the interiors, furniture, and clothes in his works. Many of his paintings, most notably the Mérode Altarpiece, may serve as the detailed guides to the ethnography of everyday life and material culture of his era. Every single object painted on his works is an invitation for an in-depth research into how things were made, used, displayed and in general embedded into everyday fabric of life (and that in addition to their symbolic meaning on the paintings).

We can therefore treat the mirror shown here as a very accurate representation of the real object, the real mirror that was perhaps hanging in the house of Heinrich von Werl, then head of Cologne, who commissioned the work. It has an elaborate – but not over-decorated – frame, consisting of a few concentric circles. The innermost circle is interesting, it looks like it’s a part of the mirror itself; it could be a series of cuts made on the glass itself – we see, although much later, similar designs on the paintings by Titian, for example.

There is one object in the central part of the Mérode Altarpiece, a hanging water vessel in the niche, that shows the skills of Robert Campin in depicting complex lighting compositions. We see here the light from two windows reflected in the curved surface of the vessel (also notice the double shadows on the wall, created by these two light sources, to my knowledge the first such accurate representation of layered shadows).  This reproduction does not allow me to say if the Saint Spirit, depicted here as a tiny angel with the cross, is also reflected in this vessel.

Later the mirror in the Werl Altarpiece will be also reflecting two windows, although the reflections will be much more detailed and more elaborate then; the Mérode Altarpiece was painted between 1425 and 1428, and the Werl Altarpiece around 1438.

The latter also has a few objects with reflecting surfaces. For example, an elegant vase (or a cravat carafe? –thank you, Ruth!) standing on the fireplace, not far from the Trinity statue.

It’s a tiny masterpiece on its own, of how light reflection can be depicted. We see here the window reflected in this bulb-like vessel, which is half full with water. The image of the window is crossed with the water surface line, cutting it into two halves; because of the water surface also works as a mirror of some sort, we see another, tiny window on the opposite side of the vase too. And, as if it’s not enough for the master, he also paints a very complex shadow, lit with the warm light that partly reveals the window structure.

Another example is a metal jar with iris (or lilly?) standing on a small wooden chair/table near the window. It also reflects a two-frame window, perhaps the same one as the above mentioned vase on the fireplace (interesting to note that it’s not the window we see on the background of the painting). Is it an imaginary window of this room, some sort of Unicorn here? Or these reflections were related to the image on the now missing central part of the triptych? Alas, we will unlikely get the answers.

But back to the Lamb Mirrir; in their recent article Reflections of Reality in Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin (absract, pdf) Antonio Criminisi, Sing Bing Kang (Microsoft Research) and Martin Kemp (Oxford University) argue that Campin was much more accurate than van Eyck in depicting the reflection of the surroundings in their corresponding convex mirrors (or rather how accurately they depicted the the degree of distortions by each of the mirrors).

An interesting reading, although it gets pretty technical (optical) at some point soon. Such articles inevitably further fuel the already heated debates around the so called Hockney–Falco theory. I don’t want to get into these debates here, at least for now, and instead just notice a particular strategy of embedding mirrors in their artworks that was used by both Campin and van Eyck. In both cases the mirrors are depicted as the elements of the interiors, and relatively passive, as we don’t see any interactions of the figures with them.  At the same time, the mirrors are very much ‘alive and active’, there is a lot of things happening ‘there’, in their mirror worlds: we see complex scenes  populated with multiple actors, and in both cases some of them are not present in the ‘main’ painting. The mirrors are used to refer to something which is ‘not here’, but ‘out there’. In other words, we see again the See the Unicorns? strategy, but similar to the Arnolfini Wedding, it’s a rather complex unicorn.

In some way it is a radical departure from the earlier tradition developed for the manuscripts and illuminations, where mirrors were depicted as active tools, in the moment of their use by people (where literate or symbolic, like in the case of Christine de Pizan.  Or rather it’s a start of a new tradition, of presenting mirrors as the tools for the viewers, allowing them to see something ‘outside’ the frame, thus providing additional insights (or the puzzles).


One thought on “The Lamb and the Mirror

  1. Nice post, great (and sharp :)) details of St John, btw. if you want a better look at the other two panels you can find superb high-def image files of Merode central part and Werl Sta Barbara here:

    These are truly stunning works and it is really commendable that these museums have recently made available their high-quality reproductions online so we can marvel at this beauty from afar 🙂

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