An Atoning Efficacy of the Convex Mirrors

If to glance at this picture quickly, it can be seen as a portrait on a tomb – so sad and painful the spouses’ faces, and so desperately looking they at us. An object that the woman holds seems  to be a bouquet of the suitably funeral flowers, such as calla lilies.

A closer inspection reveals that this is not the flowers. At all. Instead, this is a mirror with a long handle, with the two skulls(?) reflected in it. The painting is getting curiouser and curiouser (but the fist ‘funeral’ associations somehow get even stronger. What’s going on here?

To start with, here is the real, unmodified copy of the painting:

Exactly what did the author of this work ‘want to say’?

 rikki_t_tavi once wrote, “For me it (i.e., an abundance of the exact numbers, facts, dates, measurements etc) doesn’t matter. Well, what’s the difference between 1567 and 1645? These are just dry numbers.”

On one hand, it does resonate – I myself often leave the ‘accuracy of the details’ and instead try to grasp a more general perspective. But on the other hand, the abundance of the dates and other details does matter, to the extent that we can’t really go anywhere without them. Can we really ignore all these time anchors and consider the art works in some sort of time-less manner? A rhetoric question, of course. 

How would your perception of this work change if I’d say that it was made in the beginning of the 20th century? What about the beginning of the 19th (say, in Napoleons’ time)? What if it is made in the Peter the Great times?

I can skip many figures and numbers, but the context of time – not the exact day, month and year, but the general feeling when something happened. Without that I can not properly think about (and see) the artworks. 

Ok, what would be see here, if we wouldn’t take into account any temporal aspect? Two middle-aged people, a man and a woman, are looking at us (and look rather sadly  – but not on the (convex) mirror on the long handle hold by the woman. In this mirror we see the images of the two skulls.

I wrote about skulls in the mirror – but there was in the context of witches, or at least with an obvious presence of certain sinful activity (vanity, for example). But these skulls are somehow different – they are not just depicted in the mirror to symbolize something abstractly evil, no, they are the true reflections of the people painted here  – for example, one of them even has the same red jacket as the ‘alive’ man.

There are also a few inscriptions on the painting – some on the frame and the mirror handle, and another one on the background. I don’t have a very good copy, so I have to believe to those fortunate enough to have a better one, or those who’s seen the original (which is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, whose website contains nothing about this painting).

The inscription on the side rim of the frame is in German – Erken dich selbs, “know thyself”.

The inscription on the frame itself, above the mirror surface is in Latin – “O, mors”, “Oh, Death”.

Finally, the inscription winding on the handle is again in (old) German – Hoffnung für die Welt (Hope of the World).

The situation get more macabre, but on the other hand, all that starts getting more clear, since the painting more or less resembles the classical Memento mori kind of works; always remember about your imminent death, think about, and do the most important things in your life, and don’t get distracted by crapy stuff.

The saying “Know thyself” also has a long and rich history, although it’s not easy to say exactly what connotation is meant here – whether it’s a Platonic advice to deepen your philosophical quest, and a mundane command to stick to your place in the social hierarchy.

But the warnings about the futility and vanity of life are usually associated with young, nicely looking and often slightly underdressed girls (with a moralizing message of the Ant and the Grasshopper type). But it doesn’t look right to press the older folks with the skull imagery (at least from our today’s point of view).

The large white sign above the man’s head says, “Sollche Gestalt unser baider was. Im Spiegel nix aber das dan “- Such was the Figure (Shape) of us both. But in the Mirror, nothing left of it.

It looks that the mirror itself bears the death motif, and even is the Death itself. Being quite confused with all these puzzles, I tried to make sense of it all and gathered at least some basic fact and figures (and dates) about this painting.

The author of this panel (painted between 1527 and 1529) was a not so well-known German artist of the early 16th century, called Lucas (sometimes Lukas) Furtenagel; ‘not so well-known’ to the extent that we still don’t have an article in Wikipedia about him (a very dubious criterion, of course, but still) (PS: As of Jan 2017 there are both English and German versions available). It is believed that he was born about 1505 (which means that at the time when this work was created he was 22-24 years old). It is assumed that he worked in the workshop of Hans Burgkmair in Augsburg.

There is only a couple of works of this master that survived till today: the posthumous portrait of Martin Luther, made in 1546, and his posthumous mask (in case of the latter I can’t even say for sure that it’s a work by Furtenagel himself):

Perhaps this Lukas Furtenagel specialized in such posthumous art? And the double portrait also belongs to this genre? Who is then depicted here?

It turns out that this is in fact the very Hans Burgkmair, also a painter, in whose workshops Lucas worked, and his wife Anna: the official title of the portrait today is ‘The painter Hans Burgkmair and his wife Anna’ (no mirrors mentioned).

Anna’s maiden name was Allerlai, but actually she was a sister (in some versions, a cousin) of the famous painter Hans Holbein the Elder (and, correspondingly, an aunt of his even more famous son, Hans Holbein the Younger.)

The father of Hans Burkgmair, Thomas Burkgmair, was also a painter. Like in many other crafts, artistic skills transferred by inheritance back then, and Hans took his first drawing lessons from his father. He was born in 1473, and by the time when this work was allegedly created, he had to be 54-56 years old.  He died only few years later, in 1531 (and so it’s not, technically speaking, a posthumous portrait).

Their wedding with Anna took place in 1498, and in 1500 their first son was born (he was also named Hans, and also become an artist with time.) A history of German art in one portrait.

But all these dates and facts do not really help to better understanding what is going on on this painting; hello,  rikki_t_tavi!

Maybe they mixed up the dates a bit? Maybe somebody died before the creation of this work? Or the painting created a little bit later? We then could explain it as a ‘death masks’ of some sort.  Otherwise, it starts looking as a cynical caricature; the skulls depicted here resemble those of small monkeys rather than monumental craniums  we saw in the works of many other masters.

An article in the German Wikipedia seems to have a hint – “Zur Altersvorsorge kaufte der Maler 1526 für sich und seine Frau ein Leibgeding“, which means that after his retirement in 1526, Hans Burkgmair made a special will (Leibgeding), apparently allocating to his wife some means of income (in principle he was quite a wealthy man, working for many years at the court of the Bavarian Elector Maximilian I).

[Here I am corrected by i_shmael – “Regarding Leibgeding, the translation is not accurate; it says that in 1526 the old artist acquired for himself and his wife Leibgeding. Leibgeding, as explained, is the obligation of sustained support (i.e., the provision of home, food, etc.) until death, usually in exchange for real estate, but in this case it would be probably just for the money paid. I.e., it is a type of pension.”]

Maybe this picture is allegory of an acquisition of such a contract? In a similar way to the work by van Eyck, which was a sign/confirmation of the engagement between Arnolfini and his future wife, this work would signify the beginning of a pension age for both: 

But these are still not more than speculations; to confirm or discard any of such claims one need to gather a lot more of ‘facts and figures’, and even then they will become just a tiny little more confirmed a scenario.
Instead of the facts and figures, I would like to introduce a very different version, or different dimension, with which we can perceive this work. Whether this was a direct reflection of the biographical developments of Hans Burkgmair, or an allegory of some sort, the context of its creation was completely different compared to the one of Bellini, or the earlier situations of van Eyck or Campin.  

And this ‘context’ was created by the works of almost entirely one person, this one:


Georg Pencz – Portrait of Martin Luther (1533)

Martin Luther was literally a co(n)-temporary of Hans Burkgmair – he was born in 1486, and began to pronounce his first Protestant (aka anti-Catholic) sermons from around 1515. His famous 95 theses came out in 1517, and since that time his ideas were  not possible to ignore, especially in Europe.

Luther not only opposed the institute of the Papal church, considering it as messy – and unnecessary – layer in the society. He also questioned the main doctrines of the church and proposed his own, radically different design of the worldview. According to Luther, during life it was necessary to engage in the earthly affairs, maximizing the benefits obtain on the Earth by doing the right things, and not waste time to anti-sinful praying. The salvation is guaranteed to all who simply has faith, and nothing special is to be done in addition.

Such  system of values also transformed the attitude towards death, and to the (different stages of) afterlife. According to Luther, immediately after earthly death and until the day of the Last Judgment our souls quietly (“unconsciously”) sleep. (According to Calvin, they can still watch those who stay on the Earth, with a different, refined vision).

There is also another way of interpreting the meaning of “mirror” in the teachings of Luther. According to Luther, we have no ‘natural’ understanding of what is sin and what is not. Only Christ, by virtue of his absolute sinlessness, has the ability to detect the sin – ‘reflect’ it, as if in the mirror. Luther repeatedly refers to Christ as “the most honest of the mirrors,” that allows to reveal the sin.

In turn, when we think about Christ and his suffering for us (i.e., when we look into him as in a mirror), we also (temporary) gain this ability to distinguish between sinful and righteous around and within us. A closer look in a mirror (mostly metaphorical, but also a common one, too) allows us to better understand, better know ourselves, quite possibly get appalled and ashamed, but also through such self-humiliating procedures gain the true faith (thus securing the future salvation).

(Don’t think I in invented all that stuff – these are quotations from the Luther’s Meditation on the ‘Earnest Mirror, Christ’).

In this way we can better understand the inscription on the mirror’s handle – Hoffnung für die Welt, Hope of the World. Mirror here can also means Christ himself, showing us our sinfulness (and death as a punishment for it), but also giving us the hope of salvation).

I still do not quite understand some aspects of this story, more practical, market-oriented, so to speak. Was this work a commission? Not just one artist to another, but the acclaimed master to his disciple? Maybe it was his masterpiece (in the truest sense of the word?)

On the other side, what about the ‘mirror’ itself? Was it a completely imaginary object? or such items were in use at this time? Who was making them? How much would they cost? I feel that I wrote a large piece, and still have more questions, than answers 😦

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3 thoughts on “An Atoning Efficacy of the Convex Mirrors

  1. Pingback: Le miroir transformant 2 : transfiguration - - Jeux de miroirs Delvaux Rockwell Wiertz - - artifexinopere

  2. “Lusas” seems to be a spelling error. If there is another spelling, it could be Lucas. – Meanwhile de and en have a wikipedia page on the painter. – Burg-k-mair misspelled four times.

    • Thank you for correcting these typos: of course, it was ‘Lucas’, and ‘Burgkmair’. I was translating a whole set of these earlier postings in one go, and never managed to return and double-check (and improve) the quality. I am glad that by now we do have wikipedia pages about the painter, I also updated the text.

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