See the Falcon?

Saint Eligius The Goldsmith painted by Petrus Christus around 1449 is a crystal-clear case of many things: of one-mirror a painter, of the See the Unicorn? strategy (which I am tempted to rename into See the Falcon? now), and of course of the painting so well research and well described yet with a completely unclear meaning (at least, of the meaning of its mirror).

In addition to the basic wikipedia-type of intro, there is an excellent description of the Petrus Christus’s life and works on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website (where it shapes a part of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History), as well as a detailed description of the painting itself (it’s described there as A Goldsmith in His Shop, Possibly Saint Eligius).

I will copy from these descriptions only the lines directly related to the mirrors:

The convex mirror at the right, which reflects the market square beyond the counter, is an even bolder illusionistic device linking the pictorial space to that of the viewer. Seen in the mirror are two dandified male figures, one of whom holds a falcon. Their idleness contrasts markedly to the industriousness of the goldsmith in his tidy, well-stocked shop and is perhaps an allusion to sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.”

“The Eyckian device of the convex mirror, reflecting two young men with a falcon (symbol of pride and greed), establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here.”

The juxtaposition of the two worlds can not be stronger, indeed. We don’t see anything from the painting reflected in this round, convex mirror standing on the desk (except a strip of the the goldsmith’s – aka Saint Eligius’ – gown). Nor we see any of the elements shown in the mirror back in the paiting itself. A hundred percent case of the See the Unicorn?

Petrus Christus was a pupil of Jan van Eyck (he in fact inherited his workshop after the death of van Eyck), but I see more impact of Robert Campin on this work. It fondly presents a large collection of the objects and tools, each with own story to tell. This assemblage, in fact, includes some objects with the reflective surfaces too.

The pewter vessels we see on the upper shelf are presentkannen, or donation pitchers, which the city’s aldermen offered to distinguished guests. In all of the we see a reflection of the mirror, and even some sort of outline of the city (i.e., some sort of Unicorn again).

Diane Wolfthal from the NY-based Institute of Fine Art has recently suggested an interesting, although very controversial and not universally accepted interpretation of the painting. In her article titled Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and His Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master  (published in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Imageed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), she argues that in the mirror Petrus Christos has depicted same-sex lovers, a gay couple. In this case the mirror works not so much as an optical device, but as a tool to signify, thus shame the couple. They are excluded from the ‘real world’, de-materialized and marginalized.  I have to admit that I didn’t read the article myself yet, but only a review of it, so I may present here my own projections, and not the opinion of the author.




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