Mirrors on the Way to Hell, and Back

This will not be a posting about the mirrors of Hieronymus Bosch – first, I wrote about his mirrors already, even a few times. Besides, this painting may be not even by Bosch – it’s included in some of his catalogues, but in some others it’s described as the work of his followers. The title of this work is Visio Tnugdali, and until recently I knew nothing about this story (and now totally excited learning more and more details).

I am very tempted to start describing it here… although it has nothing to with mirrors (one of its first, and the most famous, perhaps, illustrators does, though). Anyway, a very short intro into The Vision of Tundale.

As it is understood now, this text was written around the mid-12th century, by one of brothers of the Scotts Monastery in the German city of Regensburg. The ‘official’ (i.e., the monk’s) version is is that the text is written from the words of one Irish knight named Tundale (this name so many alterations – Tungdali, Tungdalus, Tundalus, Tundale, Tondolus). The debates exist even up till now wether this ‘knight’ is a completely fictional figure covering the author (or a group of authors) or such a  protagonist story-teller did exist in some form. 

The action of the story therefore takes place in Ireland, or rather it begins and ends in this land, but the main events, as it happens, happes in completely different – and more interstring – places (or perhaps, less interesting ones, depending on your take on death, and life after death, and somehow also on your activities in the life before death).

In short, the Knight Tundale is now exactly an exemplar of proper behavior; the book makes clear that he most likely managed to commit all the seven deadly sins, and much more others, too. Basically, at some point he dies, after one of his quarrels – or rather he seems to be dead for everyone around him, but in reality his ‘soul’ is alive and it goes to journey across the the Heaven and the Hell, accompanied by several angels. The end is very moralistic, impressed by what he’s seen the knights awakens a completely transformed person and and began to lead the life righteous life.

As often happens, it’s not the general plot of the story that makes it interesting, but details, the nuances, in this case, the detailed description of the Heavens, the Purgatory, and especially of the Hell. The novel, as we would call it today, was an absolute bestseller of the times, by the 15th century it was translated to 15 different languages, including even Belorussian (!). It was one of the most widely read books during at least two centuries after its appearance (and now hardly known). One could compare by the plot, but also by the impact on the reading public with the Dante’s “Divine Comedy” – with the only difference that it was written a hundred years earlier (and most likely inspired the Italian poet, too).

I’m now perusing the Old English version of the text, with the detailed comments, both regarding the language and the content of the book. From a certain point (especially when he travels through the Hell) it’s visible that the story is based not so much on the classical Christian ontology, but also includes, for example, the Irish ‘topology’ and, shall we say, ‘ethnography’ of the underworld. But as I said, it’s all very interesting but has no particular relationship with  mirrors.

The only bridge that exists (or the only one I’ve managed to establish so far) is connected to Simon Marmion, a French painter of the end of 15h century, who in 1475 produced one of the most famous series of illustrations (illuminations) to this book.

This cover is, of course, of a contemporary edition, but it it depicts a fragment of one of his illustrations (of the Hell Mouth, to be precise). We are lucky the original manuscript  remains to be well preserved and is now in the Paul Getty Museum. Until very recently the manuscript was available only to the experts, but as I’ve just discovered, Google Art Project improved its karma further, by uploading an entire set of illumination online.)

There is no point in copy-pasting here the print-screens from GAP, I’ll show just one example, partly for joy, and partly to show the unique graphical style of the painter.

Here is one of the first leaves: the Knight’s soul is lead by an angel across a narrow bridge over the abyss (notice beautiful and elaborate marginalia).

This is how these illumination are usually presented, cut from the context of the leaf (and both text and the margins):

The GAP allows to also zoom in, and see many more details, of the figures, their gestures and emotions, but also the dresses and other elements of the ‘material culture’.

A few words about the artist: when I was whining about the lack of good painters in France in the 15 century (in my posting about the School of Fontainebleau N1), I knew one exception (Jean Fouquet), and therefore was happy to discover another one, Simon Marmion. Although the latter case only partly ‘French’, despite he was born in Amiens, he lived and worked in the places that by then were part of Flanders (e.g., Brugges or Valenciennes where he eventually died). Even GAP defines Marmion as ‘Flemish’, not French a master.

He did painted few paintings, he was mostly a manuscript illustrator. Apart of the  Visions he also illustrated a number of other famous books, for example, the magnificent Grandes Chroniques de France.

It is when looking through the examples of his other miniatures (not from the Visions), I found this leaf:

More precisely, I found it ‘again’: the first time I bumped into this leaf when making my posting on St. Luke painting the Madonna, but it didn’t quite fit the story. When I bumped into it again, it was described as St. Matthew in his Studies. At the moment I have no idea how St. Matthew is related to mirrors (I have a few examples of mirrors in the vicinity of St. Luke, many with him painting Madonna, but some not).  The presence of the angel next to the mirror also makes this scene somewhat similar to many Annunciations scenes with mirror (I showed a few of them when writing about Jan de Beer’s mirrors, but there are many more).

The mirror here is clearly convex one; it is framed in a relatively simple frame (in fact, almost all ‘religions’ mirrors, the one depicted in religions scenes, have fairly modest frames, beginning with the Campins’ mirror in the Werl Altar). It hangs in a seemingly monastery cell, but why and what it is ‘doing’ is not very clear to me. The quality of reproduction is poor, so I can not even say with certainty if it reflects something or not.

Also, this not a definite mirror by Marmion, currently it’s only attributed to the master.

We even have an alleged self-portrait of the master (although the best reproduction I could find so far is the cover of a book about the collection of miniatures in the Russian museums):

What is portrayed here is the famous scene, of presenting the the finished book, those Grandes Chroniques de France – to the ‘customer’ aka patron of the manuscript, Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, in the presence of Chancellor Nicolas Rolin and the future ruler of the Duchy, Charles the Bold (I wrote about this tradition, not only of  presenting the books, but also including the scenes of the presentation in the book itself, when I was writing about Christine de Pizan). Often these scenes included the author of the book – in case of Christina it was her herself, but in this case we assume that Simon Marmion is this figure in green coat. We even know the exact date of the scene, it happened on January 1, 1457 (but the illumination was made much earlier, so we see the summer scene in the window).

There is, however, one work by Simon Marmion, which is doubtlessly attributed to him, and which does has the mirrir – this is the so-called St.Bertin Altarpiece:

The above is only a half of the scenes, and below is the second part of this work:

This is a very large work, its total length is more than 3 meters, and each of the scenes is, in fact, a large and interesting work in itself. 

I didn’t find any clear description of the life of this saint (he was the rector of the Benedictine monastery in the town of Saint-Omer, which in those days was called Sithiu). The monastery was later renamed in his honor (the Abbey of Saint Bertin), but now it is completely destroyed, there are only ruins left.

This work in now in the Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie; but they have such a horrible website that I can’t even find it here, not to say any clear description. 

One of panels shows the birth of a baby…

… but I can even clear say whether this is Bertan himself? or John the Baptist? or Jesus? or may be even Saint Mary?

Above the bedhead we see the same ‘thing’ that already appeared in many of my postings, something looking like a mirror, or a medallion. Basically, after all this long posting the conclusion is that I still have to look fouther to figure out all that.

To add more to this messy posting, recently I also found an illumination by Simon Marmion of of St. Luke painting the Madonna and the Child; it doesn’t have a mirror in it – yet the depiction is amusingly mirroring the reality:

As I wrote already, more puzzled instead of clear stories. But such is life, and such is the mode of investigations: all my studies are sprawling like a rhizomatic grass roots, opening more and more basements and cellars, with more skeletons in them.

When searching for the illuminations by Marmion I came across a couple of large online repositories of old books and manuscripts, and there found a lot of new “mirrors in art’  that quite dramatically changed my earlier views on the subjects (thus forcing me to rethink, and perhaps re-write) some of my earlier postings too; but that rewriting of the past is clearly in the future.

PS: When translating this story for this blog, I found much better illustration of the Marmion’s St.Bertini altarpiece (also called St. Omer Retable, as I’ve learned). Many more pictures could be found here, I will just copy a few related this mirror-medallion.

The general view of the panel gives a better impression of its size (and also its color palette, my earlier images were not particular accurate).

Thanks to this image set I can show a much better reproduction of the panel in question:

At least it’s clear now that the babe is actually the very young Bertini himself.

Unfortunately, even bigger close-up they provide does not show the mirror/medalion itself (we only see its small fragment).

And so the question of  whether it’s a mirror or not (and if there is a reflection of something in its surface) remains to be answered; a trip to Berlin is due, perhaps.




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