The (lack of) Mirrors of Cranach & (almost lack of) Mirrors of Durer

I was stuck little bit lately, and could write anything interesting about mirror. And then I decided that if I can’t produce something about ‘mirrors’, let’s try to write about non-mirrors; or more precisely, about the lack of mirrors, for example, in works of Cranach.

This Die Melancholie (1532), by the way, is his work and not one by Dürer (although it is clear that former was strongly inspired by the latter).

To say that any artist doesn’t have ‘mirrors’ is always risky; it’s even more so in case of such prolific master as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553). First of all, there are hundreds, if not thousands of his works, and I obviously didn’t see them all. There may be a chance that one of those could contain the depiction of a mirror. Plus, we keep (re)discovering more and more of his works – either because we physically find some previously unknown works, or re-attribute the known ones. Either way, there is always a chance that ‘the mirror of Cranach’ will be revealed.

Basically, the lack of mirrors in well-known collections, catalogs and in the Internet is not a complete proof. The sufficient proof could only be Cranach personal statement (e.g., “I ever painted any mirrors!)” ideally supplemented with “…because of this and that.”) But we don’t anything of this kind left by Cranach, and so we have to only guess about the reason of such neglect.

(Almost) The same can be said about Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528). Despite the fact that he lived much shorter life than Cranach, his body of work is huge, too, covering a wide variety of topics – from deeply religious, to profane decorations for any house, and to allegorical and even methodological works.

Moreover, in case of Durer, the mirrors are obviously very expected to appear in this works; Dürer was a native citizen of Nuremberg, and most of his life he lived in this city, famous for it largest production of mirror in Europe at that time. And yet.

In addition to painting, Dürer was also writing a lot, including the treatises on painting techniques and methods, where he showed a wide variety of supporting tools that can (should?) be used when drawing – for example, a sheet of transparent glass with a grid.

But a sheet of glass is not yet a mirror.

Just for the sake of completeness of the series, I am also copying here a couple of other examples of his suggested drawing tools. They are all from the treatise Underweysung der Messung, mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt (The Guide to the Measurement, with the help of (Drafting) Compass and the Ruler, 1525).

This all may be very interesting, but we still see no mirrors.

I almost start thinking that Dürer, similar to Cranach, has been completely for my mirror saga – to suddenly stumble upon this study:

It is dated by the year 1515, and called, in a rather simplistic manner, Naked man with a mirror.

To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure it’s Durer: there are online several references to this work with the attribution to the master, but it’s not, for example, in his catalogue raisonné (including the classic edition by K.A. Knappe, Dürer: Het volledige grafische werk – although I’ve only perused a rather old edition, 1965).

In any case, it is a very interesting and unusual work: a rare case of a man with a mirror man. We see already familiar ‘mirror cocoon’, even if a bit ironical – it looks like this man is admiring his own “triple chin,” as we would say today. This is a very complex psychological state, as I mentioned earlier, in examining the portrait by Bellini, and here it is depicted quite skillfully (even if it is an unfinished sketch).

But if seriously, we can’t say much more about this small study – it is unclear who this man was, what is he doing here, actually engaged (and, for example, what kind of work was Then enter this study).

But than it was even more strange to find in the same volume of Knappe another woodcut, with a large and prominent mirror.

Here we don’t any psychological subtlety, everything is very straightforward (and including straightforward condemnation). The lady in front of a mirror doesn’t see herself in it, but an reflection of the devil’s wobbly tail. Or rather it is us who see this wobbly tail (which means that the tail would see us). What does this lade see, is not quite clear – perhaps, herself, but may be also the devil – but we somehow understand what the artist was trying to say here).

This motif is not unique, we’ve seen similar social interaction with evil forces, mediated by the mirrors at (Bosch could be a good example (in fact both masters lived around the same time’ Durer’s engraving dates from the 1500s).

Here we see very similar motif:

Jacques le Grant – Le livre des bonnes moeurs {The Book of Good Manners} MS 297, fol 109v  (c.1470)

and we will see them in the future (soon – er, I hope).

It’s quite strange to see such inconsistency, from one side, the most subtle psychological state, yet from the other a very simplistic, mass-market approach to depicting mirrors. Perhaps this should be attributed to the “complexity and diversity” of the artist; or – more likely – my poor understanding of this oeuvre .

This is all I found so far about the (lack of) mirrors in the works of these two German masters.

I need to add, that the frame of the mirror in a pretty awesome; it’s not even a mere frame but an entire canopy. Which, in turn, shows that mirrors had been already fully integrated into social and domestic life of the time (and, therefore, could  – should? – be depicted more often in the art works of that period; yet neither Durer not Kranach confirm the case, apparently):

I made a special icon for this class, the Mirror is Evil (with the accent on the ‘is’).


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