Unicorns in the Proximity of Golgotha

Gabriel Mälesskircher (1426-1495) is called “the most important Bavarian artist in the second half of the 15th century”, yet you won’t even find the Wikipedia page about him (as of now, at least).  The exact date and place of his birth are not known; it is believed that he spent at least some part of his apprenticeship in the Netherlands. From mid-century onward and till his death in 1495 from plague he lived and worked in Munich, where he made a very successful career, eventually becoming the representative of the guild of Saint Luke (of painters) and in 1485 the deputy Burgomaster.

His most famous work is the so called Altar with the Evangelists (c.1478), currently on display in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I combined all four panels in one picture here, but in reality these are separate works, each about 30 x 75 cm large.

The one with Saint Luke is the most interesting for me (and for this project), since it has a mirror.

The small convex mirror hangs on the background wall, between two open windows. It has relatively simple, unpretentious frame, and hangs on a metal hook (nail), similar to to one of the Crucifixion scene, hanging nearby.

This proximity is the most amazing feature of this painting; I wrote already, in the context of the Robert Campin’s Lamb Mirror that such neighborhood was extremely rare in art and would virtually disappear from the end of 15th century onward.

But here and now it is, the mirror next to the Crucifixion, an echo of the Arnolfini Wedding‘s mirror, perhaps? I don’t know what could be the meaning of the mirror in this painting, and I didn’t read any interpretation of it yet. Saint Luke is considered a patron of the painters, and may be this mirror is an indirect hint to this profession? On this panel Saint Luke is not painting, but writing (he was also a patron of students, and of academicians in general).

However, there is another panel by the same Gabriel Mälesskircher, depicting Saint Luke as a painter (I put here only a detail of this work, you can see the work in full at the MTB’s website). Notice how poorly he depicts the reflective surfaces of the vessels on the shelves, compared to the astonishing accuracy and complexity achieved by van Eyck, Campin or van der Weyden already fifty years ago.

Can this mirror be therefore a hint to the use of optical devices by the painters, as the Hockney–Falco theory suggests? Can the three window frames in its reflection be an allusion to the Golgotha?

I can’t answer these questions with any certainty; what certain in the context of this blog  is that we have another case of See the Unicorn here, when the mirror is used to show/point to something else outside the frame of the painting (in this case presumable the opposite wall with the windows).

I can not recognize from this reproduction if something else is painted in the mirror as well. The actual size of the object is about 3cm, so there is a chance that closer look might  bring more light to this story.


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