The Grandma’s Mirrors. Or not?

I already wrote here about Juan de Flandes (few times, even), but in those cases I was doing if not from an empty sheet, but from the ‘digital sheet’. I bumped into those reproductions online, dig for more pics in the internet, and searched for additional information – also online.

There is nothing unusual with such a developments, except that all this time I had in my home a book (this very book, above) about this master, and his works – including one with the mirrors! Moreover, not so long ago I’ve seen with my own eyes one of the most famous works by Juan de Flandes, the very painting reproduced on this cover (a fragment of, to be precise).

What has happened with my eyes, then? or with my mind? Perhaps, the only explanation is that I’ve seen the painting and then bought the book in the same place,  in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp, where we went to see ‘something else’. This ‘something else’ happened to be a special exhibition of rare works by Bruegel, and so the main collection (including the work by de Flandes) was seen in a rush, and parked until better times.

During quick run through the museum I took quite a few pictures – but not of this work, to my regret; I did want to, but had to time, plus the guards were too close. The book dropped to my hands almost by itself; I was buying a museum catalog, and was offered a ‘bundle’, meaning that if I’d pay a few pennies more I could also fetch this edition as well.

This would be is a very interesting book in its own rights – but I also found there an amazing, almost detective story – that also includes a mirror!

Here is the full picture:

The painting is fairly large, 50 x 75 cm, and is painted on a wood plank (that is, technically speaking it’s not a picture, but a panel – this is will be of some importance in this story.)

Its content is very macabre, which could be seen by a very naked eye; on the verge of nausea (Greenaway’s Cook & Thief & Others come to mind – also because its title has some relationships with cooking: it’s called The Banquet of the King Herod).

Thus, this man, dressed in something that looks like a Spanish costume of the Columbus age, is the King Herod. He is not the Herod the Great, who ordered to kill all the innocent kids in the city, but his son (from the second (?), or the third (?) – but not the first – wife; the first one brought to Herod the Great his son called Philip, who will also play a role in this story).  Our Herod is often referred as Herod Antipas.

Like his father, Herod Antipas ruled in Galilee, at the time of ​​transition from BC to AD. The times were tough: wars, truces, then wars again, arranged marriages to avoid new wars, and their failures to achieve the goals; all as usual. The first marriage of Herod Antipas went this way, he took the daughter of the king of one of the neighboring kingdoms, Nabatea. But during a trip to Rome (Galilee was part of the Roman empire by then), he met Herodias, the wife of Philip, his step-brother (she was also the granddaughter of the Herod the Great, that is, the Herod Antipas’ niece. That would be an incest even by their standards, but they were turning eyes blind on such things more willingly back then).

According to the Biblical texts, John the Baptist decided, for some reasons, to not turn  his eyes blind; on the contrary, he made a noise and publicly denounced Herod Antipas for this misconduct. This scene is not the most popular among other religious theme, but it was portrayed from time to time; see, for example, a fragment of the fresco by the Italian master Masolino da Panicale on this subject (1435):

What exactly happened after these public accusation, it is difficult to understand by now – even the direct Biblical sources differ in their interpretations (and if we take into account numerous reinterpretations of these interpretations, the picture will get even blurrier). Whether Herod himself decided to punish John, and was advised by his insidious wife Herodias (this is the version told by Flaubert in his same-name novel) – in any case John ends up badly, being first detained and then executed through beheading. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, plays an important role in the plot, too –  it was her whom Herod allegedly promised to fulfill any wish, provided she would dance (naked?) in front of his guests. The wish of Salome (or of Herodias?) was the head of John. What a family!, is usually exclaimed on at this point of the story.

If we follow this interpretation of the event, the girl with the tray with the St. John’ head is this very Salome:

The pairing depicts this very tragic very forthrightly; but there is also a prequel to this story. And the very i_shmael could tell more about this prequel, it is now on the display in the Geneva’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. The is the panel (the linked is even larger version):  

Th is an equally powerful, and even more macabre painting by the same Juan de Flandes. 

But the story goes back even earlier – there is another painting of the same artist,  that depicts the vere business that John the Baptist was later called after, the baptizing of Jesus:

It’s not even a picture, but a rather complex structure, about two meters high. It was always understood to be a part of an altar. I will return to this altar later, but before that I’d like to point at some interesting thing on this panel:

The presence of the Archangel at the baptism of Christ is not canonical, to my knowledge – but I have not double-check it, to be honest. More interesting for me here is a huge medallion that hangs on the Archangel’s robe (and apparently works as a clasp, a fastener of some sort):

I can safely bet that its central gem should reflect something – we see some light patches there, but more careful examination may reveal more. To check it, however, I’d need to write a begging letter to the Spanish billionaire Juan Abello, who now posses this work in his vase art collection.

Apparently, some ‘careful examination’ did happened with these panels, and at some point someone figured out that all these worked composed one altar. Originally it could look something like this:

The altar was commissioned for the church (Cartuja) of the Monastery of Miraflores, near the Spanish city of Burgos. The church is still there, and is even acting, to my knowledge:

Some of the parts of its rich central altar date from the end of 15th century (the time when Juan de Flandes was active), although many parts are later inserts:

In addition to the main altar, the church also have a range of secondary altars – some of them survived and remain in the church, so its hall looks like this:

It was suggested that the panels with St. John were parts of one such group, lately removed and disassembled. The third (presumably bottom left) part was found in the collection of the National Museum in Belgrade. It depicts what is known as the Sermon of the John the Baptist:

This panel looks more battered compared to other panels, because so far it hadn’t been restored (all others gone through restoration, at least to some extent; the one in Antwerp was restored relatively recently, and now looks like a modern remake, shining with modern varnish.

One interesting detail of this ‘reunion’ story is that the panels are made of the same tree – a rare luck for the researchers who explored these works. In addition to the ‘usual suspects’ (similarity of style, color palette etc), it turned out that at least four of the five panels (all side ones) are made of the same oak tree (or rather, of two oak trees, but as it was found, they grew up not far from each other, almost in the same forest).

Here is a diagram that  shows how the boards had been cut from the two different trees (Boom I and Boom II – ‘boom’ means ‘tree’ in Dutch):

The fifth, central panel was not associated with these trees. But about all the four we  can even say the way they were cut from the trunks: 

This is all very interesting and impressive, of course, but more in a direction of generic curiosity and amusement with scientific achievements.  All the above facts are only a preface to the story about the fifth panel – which depicts the first story of St. John’s life, his birth:  
The panel – Birth of John the Baptist – is now in the Museum of Art in Cleveland.

Careful readers of this blog will immediately recall that I wrote about the same subject place just the other day (although I was questioning whether it’s a birth of St. John, and not St. Mary – I used the presence of the ‘mirror’ in the painting by Rombouts as a proof in favor of the latter.)

But in this case it’s definitely ‘not’ the birth of St. Mary (and so it’s not St. Anna, but St. Elizabeth laying in the bed):

This is how the painting is described on the museum’s website:

“This painting was once a panel from the important five-panel altarpiece commissioned by Queen Isabella for the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores near Burgos, site of the royal tombs of her parents and brother. The altarpiece, of which the other panels survive, was likely painted during the artist’s early employment at the royal court.

“Typical of Flemish art of the period with its love of naturalistic detail and almost photographic depiction of a domestic interior, this scene suggests a comfortable burgher’s home in 15th-century Ghent or Bruges in which the artist transforms a contemporary setting to frame the story of the birth of John the Baptist.

“Having just given birth, Elizabeth lies in bed. Nearby, her cousin, the Virgin Mary, presents the newly born child to his elderly father, Zacharias. Having lost his ability to speak when he doubted an angel’s prophecy of the child’s birth, Zacharias writes the chosen name for his son. At this moment, his speech is restored”.

This description does not tell anything about the ‘gadgets’ depicted here – neither the mirror, nor the clock:

The clock in the vicinity of young St. John is, of course, a bit jaw-dropping artifact. And even if we accept it’s ’15 century Bruges’, my first thought was ‘No way! They couldn’t have the clocks by then!’ Yet people say it’s all very possible – apparently, the clock has been in use in Europe since the middle of 14 (!)- century, and by the end of 15th one they could become quite a mainstream gadgets.

But I am more interested in the mirror, of course:

It’s an amazing mirror, period (although I am less and less inclined to call these objects ‘mirrors’. I believe that their meaning, and purpose were very different from “get up in the morning and arrange your make-up, not leaving the bed’).

I now tend to think that these were deeply symbolic artefacts – although their exact symbolism is still unclear for me. It could be something like the Eye of Providence, the All Seeing Eye of God, or a symbol of purity and innocence, or something completely different, like a protection amulet, or a wedding emblem of some sort (and then the ‘mirror’ of the Arnolfini portrait, together many other similar “mirrors” would be this “something else”, rather than mirrors.

Of the other noticeable things: this thingy’ is hanging on a special hook, and also has a special metal hanger, a ring (there are also few chain rings at the bottom – but they could also be used to fix this convex mirror on the wall).

The frame of this mirror somehow resembles the famous ‘monster mirror‘ of Bosch. However, the Bosch’s mirror didn’t have any ‘balls’ on its frame, and here we see plenty of them, placed quite capriciously (there are nine on its right side, and ten on the left one, plus four radial two-balls dividers are located not very symmetrically – something like 3.15 and 9.15, respectively – yet midnight and 6 o’clock balls are fairly straight).

The reflection in the mirror is quite detailed, but still not very clear (to_do: letter to Cleveland). We can see a window or some sort (or its frame – but it could be also the cross). We can see the sky – of our world? or the Heaven? Does it show Mary and Zacharia?

See the to_do above.


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