Psychoanalytical Layers of Medieval Mirrors

I was just about to move further from these old and already bit bored medieval mirrors, toward new exciting modern art mirrors… but nope, the Middle Ages keep clinging my heels, and throw more (and more interesting) mirrors at me.

For example, I suddenly bumped into an announcement that the Sotheby’s has got a unique mediaval manuscript for sale, and in this volume I found  not just “not one, but two,” but three (!) mirrors. And in addition to their plain ‘mirrors in art’ value, they also wonderfully reaffirm the Freudian psychoontology, a nice bognus.

As we all know, the Freud’s theory of personality looks like a traffic light: the carnal fire lits underneath It, which is being constantly repressed by the powers of the heavenly social Superego. Reflection on these eternal juxtapositions is the source of origination for our ever fragile and flickering Self(ish) personality (see also self-explanatory infographics above).

Exactly the same structural relations can be seen in the mirrors depicted in the Mystère de la Vengeance, a manuscript dated back to the middle of XV century:

The manuscript was commissioned by Philip the Good, or Philip III, the Duke of Burgundy, and as such also the ruler of large amount of different lands. He ruled a good deal of the XV century, from 1419 to 1467, and his court was located in various cities (Brussels, Lille, Bruges – his last capital) in various times. The map shows quite a vast territory under his dominion:

In spite being the Duke of Burgundy, more than half of his land were not in France (where currently the province of Burgundy is located), but in modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In case of Holland his role could be considered fairly demiurgical, it was him who founded the so-called Staten Generaal of Holland (that eventually became the foundation of the modern Netherlands). He was both a brave warrior and wise administrator, see also his nickname.

In addition to all his other virtues, Philip the Good was also one of the most generous  patrons of the arts, in his own time and in European history in general. Tremendous, almost explosive growth of various fine arts and crafts in the area can be directly credits to his personal impact. Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin and dozens, if not hundreds of many other brilliant masters massively benefited not only from the direct commissions by the Duke, but also because of the general attitude to art created by him among the nobles, of respect and and admiration. Not surprisingly that we know his appearance very well, because he was painted by the best masters of the time – like this famous portrait by van der Weyden:

I started from the introduction into Philip the Good because he played quitt a crucial role in this story, too. It was him who commissioned; the exact date of the commission is not known, but it is estimated that the book was made around mid 1460’s. The whole process of making it could have taken a few years (and would require a large number of cows – the book has about 300 pages, or folio, as they are called, and one cow could provide enough hide to make one, rarely two good quality folio).

The payment for the book was issued to Loyset Liédet, one of the court illustrators, in 1468, a year after the death of the Duke. But most likely Philip was able to see the book, even if not yet completely finished, then at least a good ‘working’ version of it during his lifetime. I now have to explain what do I mean by ‘working’, and what was the purpose of this volume in general.

The manuscript was in fact a script, a manual for staging a grand performance, this very mystery. The article in wikipedia talks mostly about Greco-Roman mysteries, religious performances enacted by the members of certain cults, but it hardly mentions the mysteries, or mystèrea in Europe in the Middle Ages (or later, for that matter). As we know by now, the Christian mysteries had been a very important part of the cultural life of that time. They were performed during major festivities, often lasted few days and in many cases involved dozens, sometimes hundreds of artists (not all of them were real ‘actors’ how we understand it now, of course, but there were some professional performers of the mysteries, too).

Initially the mysteries were purely religious by the content, the first ones had been played by the priests and monks for the congregation, and were some sort of enactments of the Bible’s stories, but eventually additional, and wider stories had been added to the performances. A mystery would have begun with the scenes of the creation of the world, then go thorough the life of Christ, including the Passions, but  could seamlessly transit to the livings of some saints relevant to the area and/or its rulers. The mystery could conclude with the stories about legendary – or not legendary – battles, for instance, the actual Crusades.

The Mystère de la Vengeance is very similar to this description: the text, which is credited to a certain Eustache Marcadé, describes in detail hows to perform this grand spectacle (it should last four full days), and includes all the dialogue and songs to be performed, musical notes, the descriptions of the roles and even some ‘special effects’ during the show.

The first day of the mystery is devoted to Jugement – not the Last one, but the Judgement that occurred in the Eden, where God heard the testimonies about all sorts of misdoings by Satan, condemns it and then decides to send his son to salvate the human kind (and by that to punish the evil side, so this revenge motif of the show). Three other days of the mystery are about the life of Christ, including the Passions, but also include some contemporary stories and fables.

It is known that the mystery was performed at least once during the life of Philip the Good, that’s why it’s safe to assume that he saw the book close to completion.

After his death the book was inherited by his son, Charles the Bold, and then, in turn, by his daughter, Mary of Burgundy (the granddaughter of Philip the Good), who later became the wife of Maximilian I, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; it is also known that the mystery was performed at the court of Maximilian I, too.

By the beginning of the 17th century the manuscript was in the collection of Louis XIV, and in 1812, during the famous sale of his collection in Paris, it was bought – for 493  pounds and 10 shillings – by the Duke of Devonshire. The manuscript was stored in his collection for the next two centuries, and is now for sale with the estimates of “between 4 and 6 million pounds”.

These are all interesting background facts and figures, but I can’t say much about the book itself; it’s not yet uploaded to the internet in any form, except a few images made available by the auction house – but those are truly remarkable! They say there are 20 large illuminations in the manuscripts, but I found only 16 so far; below are a few examples:

Also, in addition to their stunning pictorial brilliance, the illuminations are also incredible bright and colorful, as if made today; this is due the excellent conditions of the volume – the picture below shows almost intactly white vellum leaves, almost without the signs of decay and decolorization.

Now to the mirrors.  

The fist mirror we see on this page:

I wrote “this page”, because in fact I don’t know what page it is. At that time page numeration was not used, so you need to have a whole volume to see the page order. I do not know of Sotheby’s followed the actual order when uploading the images.

Also, I am putting here an entire page with the text, in case someone can read Old French and share with me the meaning of the verses (the image is also linked to even larger file).

Below is a fragment of the leaf, only with the illumination:

Apparently, something very bad is going to happen with the poor guy (if not already); he seems to be attacked by the hellish creature from behind. This is the only illustration in the book where you can see so clearly and so close the presence of the Satanic forces (the other example are the dragons on the illuminations above, but they are further away). Among other interesting items, somewhat related to my ‘mirror stories’, are the “oranges” laying on the bench near the door (hello, Arnolfini Portrait!).

And the mirror, of course. 

It’s a fairly typical convex mirror, framed in a simple, but lavishly gilded; it has an interesting hanger on a top, resembling a ‘horn’, and in funny way mirroring the horns of she-devil. I can’t say with certainty, but the latter can even be reflected in the mirror, too, in addition to the mirror on the left.

From the ‘usage’ point of view, the mirror is situated in an awkward place – it’s near  near any bed or table, also the light would fell from the side, making difficult to actually see yourself in such mirror; but this wouldn’t be a problem, if the mirror is not there for  looking at yourself, but as an iconic object.

The second time we meet the mirror in a very different context, in a bedroom of an evidently very sick man. Perhaps it is the same dude as in the first picture, who fallen a victim of the evil spells? Quite possibly, but again I am only speculating here, since I didn’t read text and play what otherwise known as the TAT, Thematic Apperception Test.

The central figure, the one in a blue gown, is busy analyzing the patient’s urine, a typical method of the time. We can clearly see a mistake made by the painter, who forgot to adjust the level of liquid the vessel (it should be horizontal).

I also personally like the socks of different color – but it moves me off my track.

So, back to the mirrors. What we see here is also a convex mirror, but clearly different from the first one. It has another frame, and a different hanger, more like a chain.

The mirror here is part of a set, a group of objects which we could describe as ‘hygienic’: a pitcher, a bowl (with a sponge?), a mug(?), placed on a table of some sort. I could be wrong, of course, and whole group may have nothing to do with “health” and  ‘hygiene’, and instead be a collection of some sacred items. Or may be both.

And not the third, and the last mirror of the manuscript; it seems that this one one is indeed close to the ‘spiritual’ and ‘divine’ (and as such a, may not be even a ‘mirror’ at all).

The guy is still bed, but the folks a bit more cheerful now, it seems that the patient is getting better:

Earlier in this blog I was showing many examples of such ‘glass medallions’, including the ones hanging inside these bed alcoves. We call them ‘mirrors’, but it doesn’t look like that people used them to looking at themselves. My guess is that those were some sort of a guarding, protecting relics, or emblems, or medallions(?):

These objects are still a mystery for me; I still don’t know how they were called, and how and where used (and why).  My hypothesis is that they’ve beed used long before the glass mirrors were invented – in many cases we clearly see similar objects that are NOT mirrors, like in this Annunciation by Rogier van der Weyden:

But apparently some of the qualities of the convex mirrors made them fitting very well the purposes of such emblems, and so we see the examples like with this third ‘mirror’ of the Mystère de la Vengeance.

We should also expect to see such objects in other contexts, like the trones; but not in this book, here we don’t see any other mirrors or mirror-like objects:

The most interesting part of this story is that we see three very different mirrors in one book. I wrote about the cycles of the mirrors’ meaning some while ago, but my understanding that the different meaning evolved over time, replacing one another. Here I can see that they could have existed simultaneously.

The pseudo-Freudian allusions were a joke, of course; but as we know, there is a part of joke in every joke.

PS: When I first wrote about this manuscript and its mirrors in my Russian-language blog, I’ve got a helping hand from i_shmael who tried to translate the verses from the book (at least those related to the ‘mirror leaves’).  

Here are his versions (in my translation):

 “The first (is) the most difficult. I think that it is a dialogue between Pilate and his wife. [It] Begins with how surprised were (someones?) when they’ve learned about the resurrection of the Christ. In the middle [it says] that someone was later punished (Pilate?). And in the end Pilate’s wife (?) says Make peace, my lord (?)”.

“The second passage looks like a it is a dialogue with the physicians: the patient promised them a lot of money, and they say that if it’s this is not a serious disease, they will cure it, one of them can almost makes wonders.”

“Third is clear almost fully: the same patient, perhaps with his son-in-law, the good knight Titus. The patient complains on the pain and sickness, and the knight persuadea him to accept it as the God’s will, humbly, especially because although he does not have (sans ?) the wealth and the titles, he is one of the most respected princes of the empire nevertheless.”




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