This is not simply an ‘interesting’ story; this is an unbelievably interesting story – that is, until a day or so ago I didn’t believe that such a painting, depicting together the ‘real’, adult Christ and a Mirror, is even at all possible.
These constructs have already passed in this blog in quite a
dangerous intimate proximity to each other; several times, in fact. For example:
– Robert Campin depicts John the Baptist with the Lamb (= symbol of Christ) on its Werl Altar (The Lamb and the Mirror);
– Once this couple appeared in the proximity of a mirror, yet without St.Luke, on the Nieuwenhove Diptych by Hans Memling;
– Although with some reservations, I can also include the neighbourhood of a mirror and the Crucifixion on one of the panels from the altar by Gabriel Maleskirhera (Unicorns in the Proximity of Golgotha).
Perhaps it worth to note that in all these works – including the one that I am writing about today – we see only the convex mirrors. It may sound merely as remark about the state of technology, since only such mirrors existed by then; but the technological formfactor could have also impacted the semantics and pragmatics of mirrors.
Today’s convex mirror depicts the very Jesus Christ himself! Plus, he is even with his mother, the Holy Mary! Below is the artwork in full:
The oak panel was painted by the Spanish master of Flemish origin called Juan de Flandes. Very little is known about him in general, and hardly anything about the early years of his life. Born around 1460s in what today is known as the Flemish part of Belgium, his real name was most likely Jan or Hans. He could be trained in the workshops of Brugge or Ghent (there are various theories supporting one or another version). Around the mind 1490-s he had been summoned (we don’t how forcefully) to the court of Isabella I of Castile (also known as Isabella the Catholic).
The very first record about him in the court chronicles is dated by 1496, and in 1498 he is already named a court painter (the title similar to the ones later received by Velázquez and Goya). During his twenty or so years in Spain (in 1519 his wife is already mentioned as a ‘widow’) he painted several portraits of the queen and some of her noblemen. But apparently he was mostly preoccupied with religions works.
The very appearance of a Flemish painter at the Spanish court is not completely uncommon for those times; the painters used to travel from one court to another, the Northern school of oil painting was widely acclaimed, and also politically the territories of contemporary Belgium and the Netherlands had been officially under the rule of the Spanish crown. Yet such a high rank obtained so quickly most likely reflect his exceptional talent and skills.
Judging by the time of his birth, he couldn’t be a direct pupil of such masters as Jan van Eyck or Robert Campin. But he could be their professional ‘grandson’, trained by those masters who had been trained in their workshops. He could well be a professional ‘son’, or an apprentice, of such painters as Petrus Christus. I mentioned these names also because it means that Juan de Flandes was most likely familiar with the ‘mirror works’ of these masters, too.
This panel is usually attributed to the ‘early Spanish period’ of the master, and is dated circa 1498-1500. It wasn’t a separate artwork, but a part of a complex polyptych, consisted of almost 50 panels. Such polyptychs, otherwise known as retablo, served as personal – often portable – altarpieces for the nobles. This is most likely the case with the Retablo de Isabel la Catolica, as it is officially known.
All panels of this alter were rather small size, 16 х 22 cm, and depicted various scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, apparently of much wider scope than more traditional twelve-pieces Passions. With time the retablo was split into parts, some of which had been presented to other European courts, and some of those had been sold out, lost etc. Ironically, a significant part of the polyptych has returned to the painter’s motherland, to the palace of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, in Mechelen.
Sadly, we have today only about a half the panels from this altar left, and they are distributed over ten different museums and collections, both in Europe and the US. This particular panel is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (there is a very good description of all these, and many other interesting details on their website). I found a picture (not mine) of the painting in the museum.
So, what is exactly happening here? Who are these people and what do they do (or have done, or are going to do?)
Modern viewer would need a good deal of explanations, while both for the painter and his contemporaries the painting was self-explanatory. The depicted scene is called the Wedding at Cana (or the Marriage at Cana), or sometimes the Marriage Feast at Cana.
What happened here was later named the first miracle of Christ, so called ‘turning water into wine’, the happening that demonstrated his divine power to everyone. Interestingly, the events are described only in one (of the four) gospels, of St. John (2.):
“And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: 2. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. 3. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine. 4. Jesus said to her, Woman, what have I to do with you? my hour is not yet come. 5. His mother said to the servants, Whatever he said to you, do it. 6. And there were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. 7. Jesus said to them, Fill the water pots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. 8. And he said to them, Draw out now, and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bore it. 9. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not from where it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, 10. And said to him, Every man at the beginning does set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but you have kept the good wine until now. 11. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”
Expectedly, theologians expanded the meaning of these events far beyond the ‘manifestation of glory’ of Jesus: they also symbolize the ever-helpful attitude towards people by Christ – but also by his mother, St. Mary. In some branches of Christianity (most vividly in its Orthodox wing) this episode both instals and consecrates the sacrament of marriage, one of the major sacraments of this religion. In some interpretations the groom is in fact the very St. John the Baptist.
But Big Meaning aside, the depiction of the scene has to deal with some practicalities: traditionally, such paintings were supposed to depict the feast as well as the pots or jars (and the servants who pour water and ladle out wine later). (One of the most known paintings with this scene is by Paolo Veronese, whose luxuriant Wedding at Cana, now in Louvre, is apparently the largest depiction of this episode ever made).
Compared to this painting the panel by Juan de Flandes is rather sober and humble. We do see the servant dealing with the pots, but there is hardly any food on the table. Instead, we see a few objects placed on the table in such a way that makes the scene looking like a ritual of some sort rather that the feast; speaking about wine, there are even no glasses to drink it with!
But my point of consideration is the mirror; it is solemnly placed above the scene, as if observing and affirming (approving) it:
It is a large (I would even describe it as ‘huge’) convex mirror. In ‘real life’ it should be about 50 centimeters in diameter, may be even more, if we would take into consideration that there might be a distance between the couple and the wall behind.
It’s inserted in an interesting frame, remotely resembling one of the Boschian mirrors, of the Green Tree-Beast. It hangs on a hook of some sort, but the exact mounting is not clear, since there is also a drape (so called cloth of honor) hanging between the mirror and a wall.
It may sound self-evident (especially to the readers of this blog), but perhaps it worth saying it explicitly: in no way this glass mirror could have existed in the time of Jesus. The very technology appeared in Europe (in various places, but including in the Flemish cities of Brugge and Ghent) not earlier than 12th century, and the capacity to create mirror of this size appeared even later, closer to the end of the 13th century. So, speaking strictly the depiction of such an artifact next to Jesus Christ would border with blasphemy; comparable to the portraying of the God’s son in glasses, for example. But the artist of this time (and people in general) were not bothered with this obvious ahisoricity.
And the mirror is not just ‘hanging there’. It also does its ‘mirror work’:
We see the reflections of the groom’s and bride’s heads in the mirror, and also likely some of the objects on the table. There are some vertical stripes in the reflection. They may simply manifest the efforts to show the convexness of the mirror, its curved, bulbous shape. But they may also be the reflections of the pillars, or columns, at the place where the painter should be located (and lately us, the viewers of the scene). They may also reflect the columns we see on the left side of the panel, behind Jesus (and the glow in the mirror may well be a reflection of the light beams from behind these columns.)
One of the most peculiar features here is the striking resemblance of the composition (at least, the mirror part at this painting) to the one of van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (which in fact portrayed their betrothal, not marriage, as we understand now).
This resembles poses plenty of questions: was this a
clear plagiarism direct influence of the work by Jan van Eyck? Or was such a composition an original invention ofJuan de Flandes? Will we be able to spot similar witnesses in the mirror by the latter, similar to the ones entering the room in the painting of the former? Or that they both simply depicted a common marriage practice, of placing a mirror (or perhaps a similar sacral object) above the marrying couple? (Such practice would be of the medieval Flanders, not of Cana in Galilee around 30 AD, or course.)
And then the mirror itself – was it designed/aimed to be used as we would do it today? To check your dress, or fix hair? Or was it used as a precious symbolic object – precious also because of its rarity and high price at that time, but also leveraging on its unique qualities: reflective power and resemblance its convex shape to human eye, for example?
It would be great to find the description of how this painting was seen (interpreted) over time: in the 15th century, and then in the 18th, in the beginning of 20th and by the end of this (i.e., now). More reading, more studies. But in any case, thank you, Juan de Flandes, for such an enigmatic piece!
By the way, some interpreters allude that the man behind the columns is the very painter himself (and if yes, he could be also found in the mirror, making the painting a self-portrait of some sort.)