Mirror Tic-Tac-Toe

One of the mirrors in the past posting (on Simon Marmion), the one that was hanging in the bedroom of the Christ’s grandmother, should be more correctly described as a “mirror”, or “something like a mirror”. I encounter these mirror-like objects all the time, and some of them resemble mirrors more than others.

There are, however, some things that are clearly not mirrors, but I somehow believe that they should be considered in the context of my stories too. One of such thing we see in the painting by Gerard David, called The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor. I usually find those mirror-like things in the bedrooms, or at least in the interior scenes. This time the the “thing” is part of the throne of Mary.

Despite its French-sounding name, he was quite a Dutch artist (or rather Flemish, they didn’t have the concept of Dutch-ness by then). He was born near Utrecht, about 1460 year, but in 1484 his traces are found in Brugges, where he joined the workshop of Hans Memling, which he even led from 1494, after the death of the master. In the early 16th century he moved to Antwerp and for several years worked there. It is known that he also traveled to Italy. Like many of his contemporaries, he was quickly forgotten after his death in 1523, but in the 19th century  “discovered” again, and since then his works has been appreciated more and more (price-wise, too).

This picture above belongs to his late period, it was painted around 1510. The title I mentioned before, Madonna and Child with the Saints and Donors, is the usual description in various catalogues and educational materials, but a more accurate name is Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine.

The paintings with such a plot may confuse uninformed spectator, because they often depict Christ the Child who offers a (wedding) to a young woman, Saint Catherine (there are also version where Christ is also an adult man – but regardless of his age, Christ was not married, at least in a canonical version of the story).

He himself wasn’t married, but the scene of betrothal to Christ was seen in a dream  by some Catherine of Alexandria, who lived in the late third century. In this dream (which she’d seen soon after the baptism), she also ascends to the heaven, where Christ himself offers her his hand, and the marriage is endorsed by the very Saint Mary.

Nobody knows what would have happened to this story if Catherine’s life wouldn’t ended so sadly. Interestingly, but despite Catherine was eventually sanctified, the story of her ‘mystical marriage’ didn’t became canonical until the 14th century, where another Catherine, of Siene, also saw her marriage with Christ in a dream.

But these stories are only a prelude to the subject of my attention today, an interesting medallion that hangs over the head Madonna on her throne:

This, of course, not a mirror – although we could, perhaps, find some reflections in many of the precious stones that compose this medallion. Was it a depiction of something in real life? A known artifact, with a clear meaning and purpose? Or a total artistic invention of the master?

I know next to nothing about history of jewelry in general, and specifically religious items made of precious stones, so this story is a pure guessing at this moment.

Generally speaking, in the context of the whole of Christian history one would expect to see the crucifixion here; on the other hand, it would be ‘a bit too early’ to have, also having a young Christ in the painting. The medallion is nevertheless shaped like a cross: both its large stones and the pearls form the crosses.

From a certain point in history all Christians were instructed to have in the houses at least one, but better several, crucifixes, either with the body of Christ or simple crosses; these objects were used for praying, as a symbol of faith, but also as a ward.

Every Christian home should have a Cruficix hanging over the bed in each bedroom, and, most importantly, at least one in a common area, such as the Dining Room, Living Room, or Family Room“, says Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Crucifixion and the other symbols had not been displayed in the houses during  the first centuries of Christianity, but have become omnipresent after the 6th century. My question about this medallion would be if it does represent a symbol similar to a cross/Crucifixion, or means something very special? For example, associated with marriage and/or betrothal?

For example, here is another picture with similar object, the Annunciation by Jan Provoost (1510):

This time the medallion hangs at the head of the Saint Mary’s bed, and it very much resembles the item from the Gerard David’s painting:

In a sense, the Annunciation is also a “betrothal”, or “engagement”, and this medallion can be also seen in this ‘matrimonial’ context. There are many more examples of the  mirrors or such mirror-like objects in various postings about Annunciation; it’s very tempting to link them all to this context of marriage, with both blessing and commemorating as well as protecting and warding functions.

Here is an engraving of an anonymous master circa 1490; I’ve shown it already, but it fits this posting too, because of the medallion (mirror?) we see in the bed of Saint Mary:

The following examples may seem to be bit far from this area (at least it’s from another part of Europe – it is the Annunciation by Andrea Mantegna:

But besides a rather strange object standing in front of Mary on the table, we also see an interesting circular medallion hanging on the curtain:

The inscription on it says Ecce Ancilla Domini, literally meaning Here Is God’s Maid, or God’s Bride. I understand that it’s a bit of a “wishful thinking”, but for me the object also resembles a mirror, perhaps braided into a “frame”

One of the miniatures from the Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (A Couple in Bed), also shows a round wreath, or a crown of some sort, hanging on the baldachin in the bedhead.

But going back to Gerard David, or rather to his mystical marriage of Catherine; as I wrote already, there were in fact two marriages, with two Catherines, of Alexandria and of Siena. There are examples of the paintings depicting these two events together, like this work by anonymous master from Brugges, of the late 15th century:

It is often called Virgo inter Virgines, the Virgins among other Virgins, but its central story is about the betrothals of two Catherines. Interestingly, that in this case we see two embroidered medallions on the Saint Mary’s throne:

Some patterns clearly emerge, but I need to learn more about this tic-tac-toe story.



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