Bathsheba’s mirrors, now in the manuscripts, too

I once wrote a long posting about Bathsheba’s story and the role of mirrors in it. I stated with a painting by Jan Masseys, but also presented many other examples of this scene was depicted in art, sometimes with mirrors, and sometimes without. It just so happened that the earlier works were showing illuminations from the manuscripts, and they all didn’t have mirrors (and many painting did). This could create an impression that the mirrors were not (yet) appearing in the manuscripts. There are, of course, some exceptions – for example, I myself wrote about the mirror in the book by Christina de Pizan, or Marcia who paints her self-portrait using a mirror; but like all the exceptions as these examples would only have confirm the rule.

But as I wrote already, I recently found a number of online datasets with a lot of examples of the medieval illuminations that have changed my opinion on the matter. In short, the amount of mirrors depicted in various medieval manuscripts and in earlier  books is simply HUGE. I will try to describe later at least a few ‘clusters’ of these works, but today the posting will be about the two examples of the  Bathsheba’s story.

Content-wise, I will not be able to add much to the story I wrote last time (so if you have forgotten it or did not read at all, it worth to do it now). This time I will only tell about the mirror aspects of it.

The first illustration (above and, as often happens, anonymous) is from the book called “Office of the Virgin”, written (i.e. made) around 1480, in Modena (Italy). Functionally, this was a Book of Hours, that is, a collection of prayers arranged according to the time when they should be read during a day (another English name of such books is the Liturgy of the Hours, or Liturgia Horarum in Latin). Sometimes these collections of prayers were also called the Officium Divinum, or the Divine Office. The fact that this one is called “Office of the Virgin” means that the prayers and stories gathered their had more emphasis on praising and blessing Saint Mary, the Madonna, the Virgin – which in turn means that owner (or the commissioner) most likely was a woman, too. As often happens with such books, it contains not only obligatory prayers, but also all sorts of other “thematic” (=female) stories from the Bible. In this case, the story of Bathsheba would clearly fall into such a ‘women’ category.

The above is perhaps relevant, but still only a foreword; the ‘word’ here is simply the fact that we see here a mirror – and the huge one! More precisely, the mirror itself is perhaps not so big, but its massive frame makes it looking like a mace; you can easily kill with such a mirror.  Despite its large size (and apparently heavy weight), it seems that it’s still a ‘hand-held’ mirror, not a ‘desktop’ one – it does not have a stand at the bottom of its handle.

This is still a convex mirror, the efforts to depict it as such are quite evident (the play of  light and shadow on its surface, which makes it looks curvy. There is no reflection in it (although at such a turn there shouldn’t be any anyway – we almost could see ourselves in the mirror).

A very interesting moment here is a social, collective use of the mirror. It’s held by a maid who is also serving a towel to Bathsheba, while also trying to direct the mirror toward her. If you ever tried to show someone his/her reflection in a small mirror, you could remember how difficult it is, you both need to perform a dance of some sort with each, co-orienting your bodies to accurately position the mirror surface.

In the ‘lost mirror‘ by van Eyck we see a woman near the mirror together with her maid (?) – but the mirror itself is static. We later see the appearance of such ‘social’ use of mirrors in the Titian’s works (in his famous Venuses, of course, but also in his earlier Women with Double Mirrors (and Servants/Lovers) – but these works will be painted only 50-70 years later. This illumination could well be one of the earliest examples of such social use of mirrors.

The second illustration is made much later, around 1530, and already in France (also by an anonymous master, from Rouen, although I haven’t found yet what’s the book it’s taken from):

This one is also a “social mirror” (and even more so, compared to the previous illumination, since we have many more characters on this plate). But more importantly, there is already a reflection in its surface. It’s a “wrong” one, of to judge by the laws of optics, and Bathsheba should not be seen with such a angle. But both us now, and I am sure the readers of the book at the time of its production understand very well the author’s intention, to depict Bathsheba ‘looking at herself in the mirror.”

This is clearly a table mirror, it has a massive stand; it’s also seems to be quite heavy, the maid holds it with both hands (the frame is most likely made of metal). Yet despite a mode advanced depiction mirror-wise (= the presence of reflection), we see much lesser coordination of the the figures (Bathsheba looks terribly disproportional compared to the maid, as in the frescos of the Ancient Egypt where they painted their pharaohs and queens twice bigger than other people.)

One noticeable factual error in both of the above illuminations is a cross worn by the Bathshebas; but let’s forgive the masters their wishful thunking.

PS: Some time later after I wrote this posting I found yet another example of the “Bathsheba mirror”. I decided to not make a separate posting, but just add a few lines. The main point is the same, that we see Bathsheba and a mirror depicted together, but there are also a few important differences.

One of them is that we at least don’t see the cross here on Bathsheba; the necklace does resemble the cross, but it is not. I wonder if it’s a complete artistic invention, or it’s a reference to real symbol.

Like in the case with some other Bathshebas, it is also a ‘social scene’, with a few maids around the heroine; one is offering some fruits on a tray, the other is holding a mirror and a towel. We saw all these elements in many illuminations I was showing earlier, but all together (fruits + mirror + group) they appear for the first time.

This leaf is also from the Book of Hours, and also from Rouen (it’s known as the Use of Rouen), and it dates from 1525, about the same time as the previous book. There is even a suspicion that they’ve been made by the same master:

The role played by the mirror here is merely symbolic, it is there, but Bathsheba doesn’t look at it (she is busy with the fruits), and there is no reflection in it.  But it’s an interesting mirror anyway, even if only because of its size (it’s rather big). Its frame is also interesting, it resembles a flower of some kind, with decorative petals around the edge.



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