Marble Mirror of Jan van Eyck

The last work by van Eyck I’d like to write about is his famous diptych Annunciation.  It was painted in 1433, a year before the Arnolfini portrait. Technically speaking, there are no mirrors here – and this painting doesn’t even look like a painting, at the first glance the figures of St.Mary and Gabriel resemble small marble sculptures.

And this is exactly an optical trick the master wanted to create, and that he has achieved so skillfully. This flat, 2D painting creates an illusion of a 3D object (this genre is called trompe-l’œil). In this case, however, van Eyck creates not only an illusion of a 3D object, but an illusion of a 3D object reflected in a (dark) mirror! Both St. Mary and the dove on the right part, and Gabriel on the left part of the diptych are shown as if they are standing next to the large flat mirrors behind them.

If it would be real mirror, in my terminology it could be described as the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. A a very daring project, and astonishingly beautiful!

Of course, when I write ‘mirror’, it bears a lot of ‘projective power’, of my own projection, that is. I am not even sure if van Eyck was able to imagine a mirror of such size – what was available at his time were small, convex mirror; the whole idea of a flat mirror of the size of human figure could be completely alien to his concept of a ‘mirror’. It would not be that difficult to image any other reflective surface, of course – for example, a well polished marble plate.

We’ve been to the Louvre, Paris recently, and seen a similar work, attributed to the workshop of either van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden (only here it’s St. John the Baptisr and St.Mary with the Child). Even without the effect of dark mirror-like effect of the above diptych, these panels look really really amazing.

Both these panels, and the ones by van Eyck are actually very small, each panel is only slightly larger in size than A4. To be honest, the work Louvre , although being nice, did not produce this 3D effect – here in the photo the effect is even bigger. I blame a very poor condition of these panes (doesn’t look they’ve been restored at all) and may be even more, very poor light in the room; the panes have been placed in a dark corner, so one can hardly see any details.

In Madrid, the Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, where the van Eyck diptych is now on display, it seemingly looks little better – but only a little, I am afraid; both the light and the placement look pretty horrible.

Therefore, however strange it may sound, the best way to look at the panting could be to use the Art Project by Google, where you can admire its every details. 

As I wrote earlier, van Eyck didn’t have large mirrors to hand, to use them as the ‘modes’. But some experience of working with real mirrors he should have had, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to depict these multiple reflections with such accuracy: 

For example, to avoid typical mistakes and don’t forget to change the right and left in the “mirror”; it all seems so simple, but many master did make these mistakes, not having a chance to play with the mirror qualities.

Both back then and now there are numerous examples of the errors made by the painters who tried to depict mirror reflections; they are still quite some counterintuitive, and Lewes Carroll wrote about his famous book with mirror paradoxes not without a reason.

Interestingly, but these panels are attributed to the year 1433, just one year before van Eyck allegedly made his Arnolfini portrait. Knowing about these marble mirrors, we can assume that he came prepared for his double portrait (and who knows, but may be even the portrait was commissioned because of this reflective work?)

If to stretch this line further, we can perhaps imaging a plot in the Dan Brown style, where this “Arnolfini” is actually the Archangel Gabriel… holding the hand “We Know Whom”. But this interpretative avalanche I’d park until some better times.


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