Speculum sine macula, postmodo: Memling, Madonna, Apple, Mirror

There is another work by Hans Memling that makes the story about his mirrors much more complicated (and more interesting). Few years later after the completion of the Earthly Vanity triptych, Hans Memling was commissioned by some Maarten van Nieuwenhove to paint the Mary with the Child Christ, with him as a patron. The resulting work was this marvelous diptych Our Lady with the Child and Maarten van Nieuwenhove, completed in 1487.

Today we see two hinged oak panels (about 30 x 50 cm each) position side by side, but it is believed that originally they were placed either wrapping a certain object, like a column or pillar, or instead placed into a certain wall niche. In any case, the intention was to create a certain 3D virtual space, where the two panels would inter-play with each other (and so such an unusual composition of the paintings and the use of two very different perspectives). The painter also used a variety of other tools to create this joint space – you can read and see more of those on this website: Explore the Hans Memling Diptych.

But was particularly interesting and intriguing for me is to discover a convex mirror that Memling placed right behind Mary (!):

The placement of the mirror into such work puzzles the researchers and critics for years. From one side the mirror is traditionally associated with Mary, as a symbol of her divinity and purity (sinlessness).

“She (Mary) is a reflection of the eternal light, and a stainless mirror  (speculum sine macula) of God’s majesty” – Book of Wisdom (7:26).

Yet the mirrors, then and later, had been also seen as a sign of vanity and evil, as picture of the very same Hans Memling I just talked earlier illustrates so well.

Besides this puzzling neighborhood of the sacral and the sinful, the very depiction of the mirror is weird. Placed like that, it wouldn’t allow the left window door to shut, which lead many researchers to a conclusion that the mirror is a later add-on, as an afterthought by either Memling himself, or his patron (in the latter case perhaps even painted not by Memling).

In any case, it was likely painted not from the model, i.e., not from the real mirror. A close look at this mirror reveals the two figures, apparently Mary herself (although painted from the back) and the second figure (apparently Maarten van Nieuwenhove).

However  there are too many inconsistencies between this depiction and the way how it should look like if Memling would be accurately reproducing it from the real settings.

In their recent research paper “Reflections on praxis and facture in a devotional portrait diptych: A computer analysis of the mirror in Hans Memling’s Virgin and Child and Maarten van Nieuwenhove” (pdf, 10pp), Silvio Savarese with the co-authors tried to reconstruct the ‘real reflection’ that such mirror should present, and concluded that there too many inconsistencies between what we see and ‘reality’.

Finally, in terms of the Art Mirror Strategy, we see here a crystal-clear Dark Side of the Moon and rather strange Unicorn.  In addition to the back side of Mary we also see something (or someone) who is not present on the painting – but very present on the proximal painting! Pretty interesting solution, and we won’t see something similar up until some very contemporary art works only.


PS: Some years later I had a chance to see this diptych in real life:




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