The Mother and/or Grandmother, and a Mirror

This posting requires if not to read [it’s in Russian] then at least to look through the previous one, where I tell the story about this newly (re)discovered master, Jan Rombouts, and show dozens of his works.

In fact, that epically long posting was written partly with a purpose to make this one short and to the point. The point of this posting is, of course, its mirror.

The photo above is of poor quality, because I took it by iPhone, and secretly  after they caught me with my camera. Here is a bit better image:

The painting dates back to 1515, and is described as Birth of John the Baptist – The Birth of John the Baptist (?).

To prove the attribution, two signs are usually mentioned: the painting hanging above the fireplace showing a beheading… of someone – I can’t see who is executed, it could be also St. Catherine, but could well be aslo John the Baptist. The second hint is a richly ornate basin in which they are going to bath the baby, which could be seen as a prophecy about the procedure that John subject Christ some years later.

If to follow this take, it is Mary herself who holds John; according to some sources, Elizabeth, the mother of John, and Mary were cousins, so John and Jesus would be the second-cousins. In the Gospels they also mention the Visitation, a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth when both were pregnant, which means that in this scene Mary is still bearing her own son. 

This story is a popular subject of many painting and illumination: one example could be the page from the famous Milan-Turin Book of Hours, believed to be made by Jan van Eyck:

But here the interpretation is also supported by other elements of the page: at the bottom of it we see the scene of baptism itself: 

In this miniature Mary doesn’t held the baby, but she brought some healing ointment (?) to Elizabeth.

Another famous example of this scener is painted by Rogier van der Weyden, as a part of the altar of St. John the Baptist. Here is the left panel:

Here Mary presents the newly born child to his father, called Zacharias. The latter lost  lost his ability to speak when he didn’t believe in the angel’s prophecy about the child’s birth. According to the Bible, when Zacharias wrote the name of his son, he regained his capacity to talk.

These are all very solid references, but I still have some doubts. When I look at the painting by Jan Rombouts

I somehow see the contours of the other one:

I wrote about this work by Jan de Beer, that also depicts the birth, but of different child, Christ himself.

Worth reminding that Jan de Beer lived and worked in Antwerp, which is basically across the street from Leuven. But more important than the geographical proximity is the “mirror proximity”: we see in both works the object that often serves as a marker of the Virgin Mary:

The close-up shows even better that the executed could indeed be St. Catherine. Rombouts himself has another work on this subject:

Also interesting to note is that the mirror (in a very rich frame) changed its place, it looks like it was initially intended for other location on the wall. This resembles the post-production that happened with the mirror on the Memling’s Nieuwenhove Diptych.

By the way, in the same catalogue where I’ve scanned this Birth of John the Baptist from I found this engraving by anonymous master known as the Master FVB; it’s Annunciation, of ​​about 1490:

Under the canopy of the Mary’s bed we see this object:

It looks like a small mirror (but can also be a medallion of some sort). Its shape and decoration are similar to the ‘mirror’ of Arnolfini, and in case it adds one more case to my growing collection of St.Mary’s ‘mirrors’ – which, as I argue, most likely were not mirrors in our sense of the word.

Back to the painting of Rombouts: if it’s indeed the birth of St.John, it extends the ‘use’ of these mirror-like objects to a broader range of scenes, not only related to St.Mary.




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