Of the Mirrors, and the Magic (of Love)

I didn’t plan to write any more postings about ‘mirrors in art’ this year… but then I stumbled on an interesting painting that (seemingly) perfectly matches my previous posting, about mirrors and witches. Although when I write ‘witches’ in the context of this work I have to a bit more careful, as not everybody would agreed with this interpretation.

The work shown above in reality is a relatively small panel, 17 x 24 cm (basically, A4). It is painted with tempera which is bit unusual for the time when it was apparently made, 1480-90-s, when the majority of the artworks had been already painted by oil. Its author is unknown. Earlier it was thought that he was from the workshop of Jan van Eyck (mainly because there is another, somewhat similar nude attributed to this master), but more recent studies indicate that the panel was likely created by one of the masters from the Lower Rhine (for example, in one of the workshops of Cologne, Dusseldorf or Munster).

Currently the panel is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, but there’s nothing about it on their website, except a very small picture. From its relatively modern look I can assume that the work had likely been restored recently.

But I do not have a larger copy of this restored panel, so I will make a few uneducated guesses using the work that I have, the old one.

And there is quite lot here to guess about!

At a first glance, the depicted scene is simple – a young lad is spying on a naked girl (quite a common theme in real life, yet surprisingly seldom represented in art, I have to say.)

To figure out what this girl is doing here is much more complex a task.  I wrote the numbers around room assigning them to the key ‘things’ that are being discussed most often:

N1. is a fireplace. Generally speaking, it’s a neutral object, it’s supposed to be in the main large room of any house of that time anyway. But it has been traditionally associated with a lot of ‘evil activities’, and in general is considered to be a symbol of ‘passion’ and ‘lust’.

N2. is the difficult to interpret. It looks like a trunk, a chest, placed on a chair. Inside of it we see a rather large, heart-looking object. Is it a real heart? It’s too too big to be a human organ, and in and case it does not look like a real heart, but more a symbolic representation of the heart. Is it made out of colored wood? or alabaster? or wax ?

And what does the girl sprinkle on it – real blood? wine? simply colored water?

Is she squeezing this ‘liquid’ out a sponge? or perhaps the real heart? May be it is a small animal that she sacrificed? We can find these ideas in various interpretations of the artwork.

Because of these symbols, the scene has been often described as a session of erotomagic, a form of sortilege, or cleromancy, whereby the sorceress tried to force somebody to fell in love (either with somebody else, or with herself). Apparently there existed a set of ritualistic practices in the Middle Age Europe, somewhat similar to voodoo, when the girls were making wax figures of their betrothed men, and later melting them by fire, thus anchoring the dudes to the ladies (this a very simplistic description of these events, of course).

In some online art collections this painting is still called Der Liebeszauber, the Potion of Love (another translation – the Spell of Love). For example, in the book where I found this copy (Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the time of Durer, Bellini and Titian) it’s called The Enchantment of Love (although ‘enchantment’ is a much broader concept than a ‘spell’).

But this interpretation doesn’t quite fit with the time and place depicted here. Plus, neither the model of heart nor the thing (sponge?) she holds in her hand are really being melted. Therefore, more complex explanations emerged, including the ones that explained the scene as a symbol of “Christian chastity” – in other words, interpreting the performance we see here not as ‘lightening the fire of passion’ (see also the fireplace, N1), but as ‘responsibly putting it off’.

The “dog” (N3) in this context would be a pointer the “loyalty and devotion.”

The bird (N6) is called a “parrot”for some reasons:

and a parrot is a symbol of vanity (similar to the peacock’s feather).

I don’t think that this bird is a parrot, it rather resembles a wagtail. The bird is seemingly stealing – a grain? a bead? a pearl? – from a cup. The latter cap is also pretty unusual, it has a large quill attached (reaching the size of a small fan).

I also see some letters behind the bird. May be these are the initials of the master, or a hint that would help us to “read” the work? Interestingly, but the bird is also looking at the girl, as if spying on her, too.

The mirror was obviously the most interesting part for me here, but I can’t see anything in it. The copy that I have is rather poor and it doesn’t allow me to say with any certainty if something is reflected there or not. I can only guess that there is a fire there, and also a window of the opposite wall.

It seems to be also a silhouette there (or a man entering the room?), but that could be only my wishful thinking, of course.

It is interesting that no one commented on the speech scrolls (they are sometimes called banderoles). They don’t have any text now, but we can assume that they did contain some writings on them in the past. Maybe it was a letter or a message of some sort? Or may be it was a manual, the how-to of the ritual? I do not know the answers, but surprisingly,  no one else even even asks the questions (at least I didn’t find any texts talking about these scrolls).

But even more surprising is the silence about the flowers in the lower register of the panel. The flowers laying on the flow are all different, and they are also laid in a particular way, also forming a message, perhaps. They could as well be a part of the ritual (alchemical, as suggested in the above mentioned book).

Myself, I can hardly tell a rose from a tulip, but I assume there are profs who know everything about the flowers and their secret/symbolic meanings! Do help!

Just in case of such help is already making haste, I’ll post a few larger images that could hopefully help to define what are these flowers, and what could be their meaning in this context.



3 – 4 – 5.

6 – 7.

8 – 9.

My own version is that this panel could be a guideline – but not of how to conduct this particular ritual, but how to detect a witch or a sorcerer in the house (in your own house or someone else’s one when you visit it).In other words, it was a visual aid of some kind (but I am obviously very keen to hear the alternative opinions).

Just in case I’d like to copy here the version proposed in the book:

[here will be a quote]

PS: When I was looking through the sources for this posting, I came across a contemporary remake of this panel made by one Adam McLean, a modern scholar of alchemy and at the same time an artist.

This is a fairly accurate reproduction of the original work, though Adam made a few small alterations (e.g., the bird looks at the peacock feather here, and not at the girl). But it also reveal more details, most notably, the vessels and jars in the cupboard (some of them also have reflective surfaces).


PPS: As of August 2016, the museum in Leipzig made this panel more prominently present on their website:

At the moment the panel is profiled on their main page, and leads to the next page where the museum is trying to seduce people into buying the annul tickets:

On a more positive side, the museum also put online a slightly better copy of this panel:

It is still not really perfect, and it still does not allow to see much of its mirror reflection, but at least it is somewhat better than I had before.

I also found another fairly good copy of this panel on a cover of the book on ‘occult knowledge on the Shakespearean stage‘ that was published a few years ago:



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