De Beer & The Grandma’s Mirror

This story started the National Gallery where we visited recently. During our last visit to the Gallery I came across this beautiful and interesting work there, called The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints. It’s pretty big, about five feet tall in height, and apparently restored not so long ago, it was all shining and full of details.

I didn’t manage to see all of them back then (and there), spending not much more that the notorious 27.2 seconds near the painting (allegedly, the average time spent by a visitor world-wise per art work). Plus, it was not allowed to take pictures in the Gallery (my usual way of exploring the paintings in the museum is by taking pictures of very small fragments of the works; by doing so, I am somehow forcing myself to look at the details).

The name of the master – Jan de Beer – did not say anything to me then, so I just noted it down, to explore later.

When looking at this work in the museum, I got interested not in mirror-like elements (I didn’t spot them first), but in those ‘dolphins’ decorating the throne of the Virgin.

I saw similar ‘dolphins’ in several other works, too – to only realize that I know nothing about their symbolism (and therefore need to learn more, somehow).

I later also found mirror-like elements in this work, too:

The pillars of the throne are made of glass, or crystals of some sort, and reflect something like a window in them. This seems to be a bit strage, because the whole scene happen outdoor, so to speak, and there shouldn’t be any windows in the vicinity.

In one of the glass balls (beads?) on the right we see something like a face; it would be great if this is the case, because it would be the only self-portrait of the artist known.

We know very little about Jan de Beer About the author knows very little: the article on Wikipedia consists of one short paragraph; the Gallery managed to stretch it to two…

Jan de Beer was born in Antwerp, probably around 1475. He was considered to be one of the greatest painters of the ‘Antwerp Mannerists’, artists who broke with the tradition of early 15th-century Netherlandish art by introducing figures in expressive poses and setting them within elaborate architectural spaces.

He was an apprentice to the painter Gillis van Everen, who ran a painting practice and became a frequent participant in the Antwerp Guild. De Beer joined the Guild as a master in 1504 and, only five years later, was elected as alderman – a position typically occupied by senior members. In 1515 he became Dean of the Guild. After 1519, there is no documentary evidence of his activities until 1528, after his death.

… but if you let all air to, you end up with the same one.

As I said, the name of the master didn’t ring a bell for me in the museum. But his worls were nice, I’d like to show here a few details:

I was particularly intrigued by one figure, a woman wearing strange headdress:

I had a vague feeling that I saw this face already, somewhere. And only later, when back home already, I figured where:

with no less impressive headgear.

In this way I found that I actually had one of the works by Jan de Beer in my ‘Mirror Treasure Box‘, and indeed, with a mirror in it:

Like all other art works (including a triptych which I began with), this painting is only attributed to Jan de Beer (and as with all these presumed works, it is always appended “and a workshop.”) Also, as in the case of almost all other works of the master, the date of creation is  indicated approximately, between 1515-1520 years (the site of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum says 1520).

Personally I would attribute this work to an earlier date, say, the beginning of the 1500s; it’s a hybrid, blending hyper-realism of the old Flemish masters (e.g., Jan van Eyck, or Rogier van der Weyden) with some elements of the Flemish mannerists, with their elongated, Modigliani-like figures). Later de Beer created much more mannerist works.

Content-wise, the painting depicts quite a rare scene, the so-called The Birth of the Virgin. Mary is those young girl whose back is warmed near the fireplace. Her mother (and thus the grandmother of Christ), St. Anne is laying on a bed. It’s interesting that we see only women in this scene: I guess it was a common practice of those times to expel all the males during the delivery).

Like many of the old Flemish interior paintings, this one also has plenty of small and interesting objects; the meaning of some of those we can guess, while other remain quite puzzling.

A pitcher of water with a towel, an attribute of many paintings with St.Mary too (especially, of the Annunciations):

Women’s needlework (the scissors are cool, they work on a completely different principle than the ones we use now):

Judging by her hairdress, she wasn’t an ordinary maid; a midwife?

She is holding a spoon with in the left hand; any special meaning? also, of the whole procedure of feeding?

I’d also like to draw the attention to a tray mounted above the door in the back room; some of these things had been also used as reflectors, especially with the candles placed in from of them.

Finally, the main item in the context of this blog: 

I was writing, few times already, about the use of mirror in the scenes with St.Mary, and their meaning in this contexts (see the Nieuwenhove Diptych (1487) by Hans Memling, 1487) or St. Luke Painting Madonna (1490e) by Derek Baegert), but this is, I guess, probably the earliest appearance of (or an encounter with) mirror in her biography.

Compositionally (and therefore content-wise too) the mirror here resembles the one in the Memling diptych: we see only the back of the woman reflected (but not the baby herself).

It is worth mentioning a very unusual, octagonal frame of the mirror; it looks simple, but quite rich. It’s likely a convex mirror, which is also stressed by the use of a strong light flare in the upper left corner (which, of course, may also have a symbolic meaning, e.g., the light of the sun shining in the presence of the Virgin, or something of this sort).  Or the light of the candle?

In short, it would be yet another case of the of mirrors in the scene with St.Mary; interesting, but not adding much new.

But then I suddenly discovered other object in the picture, that nobody talks or writes about:

This thing, that hands above the head of St. Anna, is not even an artifact, it’s a whole gadget. Very elaborate, very beautiful, and completely mysterious. What is it, precisely? It’s very tempting to describe it as a mirror, too, but the one embedded ont a very complex frame. The closest comparison that comes to mind is, of course, the mirror of Arnolfini, also surrounded with the round medallions.

But I somehow sense this is not a mirror, but something else, and even it it had some features of the mirror, this gizmo should be called differently, and used for different purposes). More reading ahead!

There is another work by Jan de Beer in the the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, called Annunciation:

The museum describes these two works as a part of one larger ensemble; I think it’s  bit far-fetched and too literate (here is St.Mary, and there is St.Mary – voila!)  Judging by the manner of painting, and assuming they are still by one master, we can safely assume that there are at least few years between these two works (I wrote about similar dynamics of art style in case another Northern nannerist, Jan Masseys).

There are not mirrors (or mirror-like objects) in this painting – but the bed is also not shown here in full. But there are few other interesting details. The cat and the mouse are nice, sure (although the cat’s face looks more like a pig’s one), but there are also a few objects that bear some relevant to the mirror theme: the vessel on a shelf have interesting reflections; the Archangel’s medallion; and of course a tray behind the candle next to the bed:

Intrigued by all these artifacts in the works by Jan de Beer, I surfed through the web a bit, and collected few more examples.  Unfortunately, this particular Annunciation is only found in black and white:

It is in many ways similar to the previous one (and has many similar characters, the cat, for instance; though I do not see the mouse yet). But we see more of bed here, and therefore can spot, although not so well, few interesting details:

Behind the column, on a table, we see standing a large tray (or a plate); there might be a candle in front of it. But can it be also a mirror?

On the wall above the pillow we see, albeit purely, the same mirror-like object as the one hanging above the head of the St. Anne.

I also found a version of this scene (this time in color):

Here the bedhead is hidden, but we see a large convex mirror right on a wall! It’s in a luxurious gilded frame, again resembling the shape the medallion in the Birth of the Virgin. Wether accidentally or deliberately, but this mirror merges with the staff of the Archangel Gabriel, forming a strange mirror-axe (gently hinting that mirrors can be used as weapons).

More research into mirror-like things!



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