The Dark Mirrors of Hieronymus Bosch

It’s not unusual to read the texts with the titles “Garden of Earthly Delights: A Mirror for Modern Times?” or “Hieronymus Bosch: The Mirror of Man“; they easily fall into a more general category “Art as the Mirror of the World” (the link leads to the nearly same-name book by Julian Bell). But in case of Hieronymus Bosch such comparisons might seem to be particularly accurate and not far off from the truth a description.  His works are huge, and populous, and complex – worldly even, and as every MMRPG may indeed reflect many things, if to look for them well.

The titles like “Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights and the Mirror of Mirrors” are much more rare, and thus intriguing and interesting. This is in fact a working title of the coming publication by Reindert Falkenburg, a known scholar of Medieval Art and History, currently with the NYU in Abu Dhabi. I am looking forward to reading this interesting volume, hopefully soon.

The puzzle of course is that, technically speaking, there are no mirrors in this painting (by the way, how many of you noticed that the above image is a mirrored one?)

This doesn’t mean that Bosch didn’t deal with the mirrors in his works; he did. In fact I believe that the way he depicted mirrors has significantly impacted, and subsequently changed the direction of ‘art of mirrors’ for at least a century, the fact that is rarely recognized and mentioned, if at all.

And that deep impact occurred even despite that Bosch  painted mirrors only in one of his works, so called The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.

This painting was previously seen as a relatively early work of Bosch, made around 1480, when he was in this thirties; it is now believed to be painted around 1500 (and there are also suggestions that the painting may be not of Bosch at all, but painted by one of his pupils. I will leave these issues for the professionals to solve).

The work is rather large, 120 x 150 cm and has a very unusual composition, consisting of five circles. It was in fact a table top, not a conventional painting.

The central circle illustrates the seven main sins of Christianity (Wrath, Greed, Envy, Pride, Gluttony, Sloth and Lust), each painted in a corresponding  segment. The center is occupied by Christ himself, who emerges from the grave with the words Cave Cave Deus Videt (“Beware, Beware, God Sees”).

It is in the Pride (Superbia) segment we see the first mirror by Bosch: a thin-bone wolf-like demon holds a mirror in front a woman who is adjusting her wimple.

The mirror itself is painted quite badly, or rather its quality deteriorated with time, I guess. We now can see ‘through’ this mirror, it looks more like a film placed over the planks of the cabinet.

Also, the reflection is wrong: the woman is seemingly looking at the mirror full face, but in the mirror we see her in profile. Even if assume she turned her head to the left behind the wimple, her hands are still displayed not accurately in the reflection: her right hand touches the bottom of the wimple, while in the mirror it touches its top.

Despite all these mistakes or deficiencies, it is still an interesting and significant development in displaying the mirror, that is shown as a tool, an agent in a social, multi-actor situation. The demon not only holds the mirror here, thus inviting the woman to indulge into narcissistic self-admiration.

Notice also a small figure of a man in the next room. He stands near the fair-place and evidently holds yet another small hand-held mirror in his hand. We may well see another small Butterfly here.

(There is also another interesting lighting solution displayed there – we see a candle on the fire-place, with its light reflected by a metal disk (a dish? a tray?) standing behind it.)

This scene is echoed in another part of this work, in the Hell, one of the four circles depicting the Last Things.

In this fragment the demon is also holding a mirror, also an oval one, but smaller. It shows it – but to us, the viewers, not to the terrified and crying couple. For them it’s too late (and not really necessary) to look in any mirrors, their permanent suffering has already begun: the giant black toad is climbing at the woman’s vagina, and an angry peacock is aiming at the man’s penis.

But for us, may be it still can work as a warning, as a reminder to not look at the mirrors too much? Alas, we do want to look at this particular one, to see if anything is reflected there.  And something is indeed there, we see a curved reflection of the window (!).

Windows? in Hell? O.M.G., as they say these days. I used to have a difference conceptual model of the hell, somewhat window-less (and mirror-less, for that matter). But well, who know? Perhaps rooms with the windows can be a part of hell too.

This woman/toad combo brings to memory another painting by Bosch, or rather a small fragment from the bottom trimester of the Hell, the right wing of the Garden of Earthly Delights.  Here the young sitting naked woman is caught by both a rat-looking demon and by a strangely looking green creature, with the branch-like arms.

I wrote earlier in this posting that “there are no mirrors” in the Garden; well, yes and no, as we see. This one we can be considered a mirror, even if with some stretch. What looks like a large convex mirror can be both the creature’s face – or its arse, especially if we  cut the branches from the scene (see below).

In any case, the woman does not look into this mirror, her eyes are closed, she looks like she is asleep (poisoned? dead?)

The mirror’s frame is of very unusual design, it looks like a maw with many teeth, eager to swallow its victim. It reflects both the woman’s and the rat-demon’s faces, appropriately distorted by its convex surface. Interesting that the woman’s face in the reflection is much darker that the one in the ‘real world, and has a characteristic reddish-brownish hue of the Bosch’s fires.  Indeed, the mirror also reflect the flames we see behind the demon (or demons – we see a couple of other hungry eyes further behind).

As a teenager, perhaps as young as thirteen, Bosch has witnessed a catastrophic fire that in 1463 burned more than 4,000 houses of his native city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch) in the North Brabant, a traumatic experience that evidently stays imprinted in his memory forever, and manifest in many of his paintings.

All these examples illustrate different strategies of ‘art mirrors’ employed by Bosch. The first one is what I call the Far Side of the Moon (here we don’t see the real face of the woman, but see its reflection – I would reserve a separate name for this version, say, the Eclipse Mirror). In the second case it’s a Unicorn, and the third one is a Butterfly.

But what is common in all three examples is something else, it’s what I called earlier a ‘social’ use of mirrors. We see these mirrors as the elements (and meaningful agencies) in complex, multi-actor social rituals, performances, the ‘games’ of some sort.  I will call it the Art Mirror Strategy 4 (The Games Mirrors Play).

My first diagrams were light and white, and now I use the dark/black ones, to mark the significant shift in how mirrors had been displayed in the European art history. Previously we saw the examples of positive, or at least neutral depictions of the mirrors, but after the end of 15th century onward these depictions became predominantly negative and critical.  It’s not *because* of Bosch, of course, the reasons for that shift are much more complex that the art technique or tradition only. I guess, we need to search for a deeper social and religious reasons for such changes. Also, I don’t want to say the before Bosch *all* morris were displayed with positive connotations, the tradition seeing the mirrors as evil and sinful objects is rooted in European (Christian) tradition quite deeply. But anyway, as a simple heuristic we can treat most of the post-Boschian mirrors as the dark ones.

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