Not one, but two… goldsmiths with a mirror!

This is a very interesting mirror – although in this blog it is probably a very bad start for a posting; for me every mirror is interesting, each of them reveals a rich and mysterious story and full of discoveries, even if only my own. But this one is indeed quite peculiar: it demonstrates a number of important pivotal point, both in the history of “mirrors in art” and in history in general, and yet it’s hardly known – to the extent it was even on the internet (until this posting, that is).

A few basic “fact & figures”, to start with.

This is a painting by the artist whose name is now often written as Georg Pencz, but who should better transliterated as Jörg or Jörgen, since he was from Germany. He was born about 1500, in a small town Westheim, not far from Nuremberg. Very little is known about his early years, but we can safely assume that he has demonstrated a decent talent in drawing, since already 1523 he works the studio of the famous Albrecht Dürer, in Nuremberg.

There is quite a few examples of the earlier works by Pencz available now online, of various degree of erotism:

Queen Sophonisba Taking Poison from the Messenger of Massinissa ( с.1526)

Abraham und Hagar (1524)

It’s difficult to say how creative these works are, because (as I wrote many times already) copying the works of other masters was not only a norm, but the very form of visual art at that time. Various graphic elements were migrating from one engraving to another like Lego bricks, out of which the painters assembled their works.

If we would have a complete database of all these works, we could perhaps trace the exact evolution of art over time and space: here the master develops a new trick, there it is copied by his disciples, than someone from a rivalry workshop steals a copy and the element eventually emerges in the etching of another Master, and so on. In fact, much of the so-called Art Criticism tries to decode exactly these developments; I wonder what they will be doing when the task will get to the hands of Google or the likes. Everything will be done at once, and for ever.

But back to the mirrors of Pencz: to my surprise, I found some that I already “wrote” about one of them – or rather, I just mentioned one of his works in a story about Susanna and her lustful Elders:

Judging by the quality of the drawing, it must be a very early work – we will see that with time George Pentz started to paint much more complex works, both technically and compositionally. But one has to start somewhere, I guess.

An interesting thing here for me is an ‘object’ standing at the foot of Susanna; it looks like a ‘mirror’ – but it could also be a ‘basin’ or a ‘tray’. Even if it’s a mirror, it is still a convex one, circular, a bit ‘old-fashioned’ (not for the Biblical times of Susanna, of course, but for the beginning of 16th century).

When digging through other works by Pencz for this posting, I stumbled upon another engraving, of Pride (Superbia), dated as 1539, with a beautiful mirror in it. This is already a much more elaborate drawing, the peacock wings alone show much more skills and imagination than the previous scene. The mirror here is still a convex one, but it’s more contemporary, designed to be held in hand (although its size makes it looking like a mace).

It’s important to note here that the picture is very small, 5 x 8 cm. George Pencz was a member of an artist group known as Kleinmeisters (Small Masters or better the Masters of Small Forms). He actually founded this group, together with his fellows from the Durer workshop, Hans Sebald Beham and Barthel Beham, who later also became famous painter and engravers). I wrote about their works already, in the posting about Hans Baldung, but I did not know by then about this movement of them.

When we talk about ‘small forms’, it indeed means something similar to our contemporary understanding of ‘miniature’, i.e., a small picture (the original meaning was different, ‘miniature‘ originates from the Latin word minium, red lead, and mean any illumination made with this pigment).  But the Kleinmeisters indeed created small, card-size etchings like the above one, that eventually formed an interesting branch of art market, with its own devoted collectors, some sort of fairs where these pictures had been swapped etc. It sounds very interesting, I’d love to learn more about this corner of art world more, at some point.

The group included many other painters, such as Heinrich Aldegrever or Albrecht Altdorfer and some others, but still the core was always this trio. They were also called “godless painters”, drie gottlosen Maler or even Schwarmgeister (which means something like ‘a swarm of ghosts’; it sounds funny now, but back then it must be pretty harsh a brand, people had been burned for less.)

The three were not burned, but not much applauded either – apparently they’ve been expelled from the city Nuremberg in 1525, for denying (!) the Lutheran  version of Christianity (in this year Nuremberg accepted the Protestant Reformation).

In this context, I’d recommend to (re)read another posting, about Lukas Furtenagel and his portrait of the Burgkmair couple, where I write at length about that time and place.  This posting is interesting for another reason, too – there you can stumble upon another painting by Pentz, his famous portrait – of the the Martin Luther! painted in 1533!

Because of this work I am even further confused with explanations of their troubles with the Nuremberg authorities. It is known that around the end of 1520 Pencz traveled to Italy, and perhaps could be seen as too much under the influence of Catholicism. With time he could be fully converted to Protestantism and/or accepted by his compatriots  to the extent that he paints the portrait of their leader, in the year when the  Peace of Nuremberg treaty is signed. But again, all these should be checked.

Back to his Italian trip, it’s not clear where he managed to go – it could only Venice, or some other northern cities too (such as Padua and Verona), but he could get up (or rather down) to Florence and even to Rome. (We should remember that at that time it was not an easy ride via a highway, but always a difficult – and often a very dangroups journey thought envious city-states or small kingdoms. Even Titian, one of the most famous artist of that time, was scared to travel from his native Venece to Rome (if I remember, he managed to travel there only once, with a convoy of bodyguards provided by the very Pope).

When Pencz retured from Italy, he began – in addition to his drawing and prints – to also produce paintings, mostly portraits. Here is a couple of examples:

Portrait of a Beared Man (1533)

Portrait of a Man (1540)

The second portrait is non-attributed, but I would venture to guess that it depicts John Calvin. This goes in line with with the presence of another portrait by Pencz, of another leader of the Reformation, Desiderius Erasmus, better known as Erasmus of Rotterdam (1537)

Notice that these are fairly standard portraits of that time, realistic but (e)motionless, with static figures on lifeless background. The “Calvin” is of course very different, since we see a much more complex scene, and more elaborated background.

This is explained by the fact that it’s a much later work, and it was created after the second trip of Pencz  to Italy. He’s been theere at the end of 1530s – early 1540s, and this time it is known that he was in Rome, and saw the works of later Raphael, and of  many Mannerists. After this trip, his style has changed significantly, he begins to paint much more ‘lively’ and ‘cheerful’ portraits (well, relatively cheerful, of course).

The portrait that I showed in the beginning, with a mirror, was from this new series, and is considered to be the first example of such open, enhanced portraiture in Germany. I’ll come back to it, but first a couple of examples of the similar paintings by the master:

Portrait of Jorg Herz, Münzmeister of Nuremberg  (1545)

Portrait of young man (1544)

The above portrait, of a young man, lately became very popular in the internet:

 And this is quite a decent version, because many others elaborate on the bottom register of the Pencz’s work.

The portraits of this kind have become very fashionable in Germany, they were gladly commissioned by the clients and even got a special name, Ellbogen, the “elbows”.

It’s not only the elbows or the pose in general that matter here, of course. The very space in the painting is organized in a different way: first, there is more of it here, especially compared to the simple flat backdrops of the early works. We also see more architectural and/or interior elements here, and people in these works ‘almost’ do something.

For example, Jakob Hoffmann, who is depicted in this portrait, holds a seal, or a signet of some sort in his left hand. He was the head of the jewelers and goldsmiths guild in Nuremberg, and had to put a quality stamp of the works of its members.

His ‘profession’ also explains the presence of the mirror in the picture – the first mirrors had been traditionally made by the jewelers, because their manufacturing required both precious metals (silver, mercury)  and the knowledge of craft to handle them properly. We see here the same connection as in the portrait of the goldsmiths by Petrus Christus.

But it is already a flat, not a convex mirror! Which makes it one of the earliest paintings of a flat mirror in (art) history. Venus by Titian, and Susanna by Tintoretto both look at the flat mirrors, but both are painted in mid-1550s. Ok, one the mirrors of the Donna with Two Mirrors seems to be flat, too (at least on some of the versions), and it’s painted before 1530s.  But in any case, the portrait Pencz is a good candidate for one of the earliest flat mirrors in art – especially if you add a condition of displaying reflection in a mirror, too (the Titian’s one doesn’t have it).

This case is also interesting because it may help us to better understand the history of the manufacture of such mirrors – which is, oddly enough, is still known very badly. It is known that the first patent for manufacturing of truly flat mirror was issued in Venice in 1515. But it’s also interesting that the applicants motivated the need to protect their invention by the existing a strong potential competitor, a school of mirror-makers in Nuremberg! So, this portrait can also portrait quite a central figure in this famous Renaissance intrigue!

And the mirror reflection is also very notable here! Not only it is a perfectly accurate reflection, without characteristic distortions of convex mirrors…

but it is also enclosed into a rich and remarkable frame, resembling a small temple (I even learned the official name of such frames on this occasion – they are called aedicula). Both the mirror, and its elaborate frame are intended to present (and promote) the skills of the master; a full-blown product placement, as we would call it not!

As I said already, a very interesting work indeed – from art history point of view, and specifically from the mirrors in art, and in fact from the mirror-making side too, perhaps.

Oddly enough, but the work is largely unknown; it wasn’t even in the internet (until this posting, that is). I found the picture (and the story about it) in a great book, a history of confluence of Italian and Northern Renaissance schools, published in a very limited edition. I found only one other image of this work on the web, as I understand, secretly made in a museum in Darmstadt, where the painting hangs now:

Finally, it is also an interesting example of showing the ‘mirror work’. The goldsmith pictured here does not look in the mirror, he instead looks right at us. We are of course tempted to look at the mirror, and see there his luxuriant beard – but at this time he will be looking at us looking at him! An interesting and original receipt, a sort of surveillance loop that we close when gazing at the painting.

[This begs my “icon”, but I haven’t drawn it, yet.]


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