Collateral reflections in the shells

When shooting at the mirrors, a lot of small glass fragments may fly around; expect collateral damage. Such is the case with my ‘mirror investigations’, too: I start exploring a work of master with the mirror(s) in to, and in the process discover the ones with the mirror-like things.

Last time it was with Juan de Flandes – and, in his case, not one, but two! I wrote about a mirror in the Wedding at Cana – and then found a mirror-like shield; I then discovered another mirror, near the Christ’s grandma (although in both cases I argue that these perhaps not exactly the mirrors…) – but in any case, I soon also found his paintings with mirror-like jewelry.

Sometimes such collateral mirrors fit into one posting (like in the case of the goldsmith by Petrus Christus, where I also write about Ghent’s reflections in the bottles there). Often I have to skip these mirror derivates, simply due to the lack of time.

Of course, in all these ‘collateral cases’ we must understand that these are not ‘mirrors’ in a full sense; on the other side, all these glasses, flasks, bottles, etc form one single continuum of reflexive surfaces, and should be at least considered when exploring the ‘true’ mirrors in art works.

This is the case with Pencz; I just wrote about one of his remarkable mirrors, but there are more reflective ‘things’ in his paintings. It may sound like a truism, but reflections generally appear on the paintings because painters are interested in reflections.  But in the case of Pencz there might be another reason too, and his interest could be linked to the production (and widespread presence) of glass/mirror objects in Nuremberg. 

An attentive reader of this blog  (or at least of the previous posting) would immediately guess that this is a portrait of the late Pencz, already with the elbows.  Indeed, it’s dataed to the late 1540s, circa 1548. This is a classic Ellbogen, with all its features,  including all sorts of different objects placed here and there in the painting.

It is not clear who exactly was Sigismund Baldinger, depicted in this portrait; he was a member of the Great Council of the City of Nuremberg, as the ‘sworn representative of the citizenry’, a kind of ombudsman in our modern terms. But it is not  clear how he gained this position, and for what services. Perhaps, he was a doctor or a pharmacist, and then the bottle on a background could point to his profession.

The quality of the reproduction I have does not allow me to see what’s written on the label  nor can I read the monogram on the wall behind him:

But if simply look at the complex curved reflection on the bottle’s sides, it becomes clear that it’s a masterpiece on its own. It is just a a very elaborate and complex, but also multi-layered reflection, that also includes with water, shadows and so forth. One has to clearly spend a lot of time playing with convex mirrors and glass vessels to be able to depict such such complex geometry. As in the case of Petrus Christus, and even earlier in the works of the great Flemish masters (such as van Eyck or van der Werden) we see here a virtuos and skillful depiction of light and its reflections, a picture within a picture.

As it turns out, it wasn’t the first time for Pencz to play such games. We see somewhat similar artifact (even artifacts) in one of his earlier works, the portrait of St. Jerome:

This is perhaps one of the most complex ‘elbow’ portrait by Pencz: he even managed to insert here some elements of landscape, another obvious influence of his late travels to Italy. If I’d had a better reproduction, I could examine the eyes of the lion, perhaps they have some reflection in them too.

But until then, we can at least see the reflection in the vase on the table, and again, a very complex and intricate one:

As I understand, this painting got into the deck of the “Chinese Artists” who are making cheap reproduction of any artwork on demand, so the internet is now filled with copies and lookalikes of this piece. For example, you can find the images like this one:

This may be a version of the painting by Pencz himself, or by one of his followers (pupils, for example) of the Pentz, painted towards the end of the 16th century, if to judge by the style. But it could be also just a modern, slightly beautified remake.

I also found another picture, with two of these lovely bottles, but also with a reflection on the candelabra:

Unfortunately, I only have this very small file at the moment, and it is difficult to see what exactly is reflected in those curved surfaces (for example, is there any reflection of this woman?)

The working title of this painting is Vanitas, and there should be some sort of condemnation here, and the bottles should also support the negative slant (the candle is often used as a symbol of short and ephemeral life) .

Nudity of the model is not such a new development for Pencz – both himself, and other members of their “godless circle” were known for high erotism of many their works. There are more paintings with quite exposed models, on both Biblical and classical themes. Here, for example, is his Venus and Cupid with a Bow (but without a Mirror, unfortunately):

So called Judith the Victorious (aka Judith the Head Cutter); both pictures are from the late 1530s.

I also came across yet another work, rather strange one. It is sometimes described simply as a Family Scene:

And in could be indeed understood as a nice, idyllic scene of family life: the dad is not here (or may be it is him on the medallion?), but the mother is busy with the baby, and another kid is busy with his toys.

But the meaning is changed pretty radically if you assign the title like “St. Mary with the Christ Child and the young St. John the Baptist “(and such interpretations do exist). All of a suddenly a lot of objects in this picture start having very different, symbolic meaning (even a cat).

Leaving many interesting nuances aside, I am particularly interested in one detail here:

Here assumed John the Baptist plays with the soap bubbles (the plot is very popular in art, but I always thought it appeared much later; and also it is usually have quite negatively associations, since soap bubble had been considered as a  symbol of wasted  time, and often accompanied the pictures with Vanity).

But the bubbles (like any other metaphor, of course), can also have another meaning, as a sign of transience, fragility, and inevitable disappearance (death); in case of Christ it could be read as the prophesy. We see a cross of some sort in the bubble – even if it is only a reflection of the window frame, it could also mean the Cross, and its inevitability.

Another boost for innovative interpretations can come from the shell, where this bubble is blown from. My immediate associations would rush more toward Venus and aphrodisiacs, but this doesn’t seem to be very appropriate for the context. I read somewhere that the phrase “do not collect seashells” (= it’s a waste of your life), is used in various Christian texts too.

And many other interesting meanings are reflected in this interesting picture, too, perhaps.


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