Inconspicuous Mirrors of Israhel van Meckenem

I had a plan to make this posting really twittery short, in a WYSIWYS way: here’s the pic, make your mind.  Alas, Sturm und Drang is not exactly my style 😦

What I wanted to show is not even a whole picture, but its small fragment; the one above.  And the only thing I could really say is that it’s just yet another example of those ‘thingies‘ hanging above the beds in many medieval paintings that I wrote about already many times. By itself, this particular work doesn’t deepen my investigation of the ‘thingies’ any further, it’s just another ‘brick in a wall’; on the other hand, any large picture is nothing by a mosaic of small pixels it consists of.

The striking difference, however, between this picture and many others is its very visible violent and agressive character; all the previous wer very pretty calm and serene, while here we clearly see that something bad is going to happen.

The engraving is in fact showing one of the most tragic scenes in the history (and of art, too), the so-called Death of Lucretia.  The fragment show the rape scene (by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of Etruscan king), and but central composition depicts the suicide of Lucretia, that led to a revolt and eventually to the  establishment of the Roman Republic:

The engraving was made around 1465, by German artist Israhel van Meckenem. As often happens with the masters of that time, we know very little about his childhood, his date of birth (1445) is only only approximately, and the place of birth is also debatable. His father was a jeweler from the city of Bocholt, in North Rhine-Westphalia, but the name of a van suggests that he could also come from Flanders, for example, from Mechelen (sometimes Mekelen). There is another version that they came from Meckenheim, a small town near Bonn.

Fortunately, we know quite a lot of his works, you can look at the web to see lots of interesting engravings and drawings – or search through some of the online collections (apparently, ‘of the best’). Many of his prints are not only beautiful but also very informative, in terms of showing the societal fabric of the times, and slow-speed exploration of a good reproduction can reveal a lot of brilliant details (e.g., see The Garden of Love at Google Art).

It is believed that Israhel van Meckenem was the first engraver who made (and published) his own ‘real’ self-portrait (with his wife Ida.) “Real” here means that it was not placed somewhere secretly and among other details into a drawing, but instead was a standalone product, with the main purpose to be exactly that, a self-portrait:

My plans for Twitter-like posting had been also destroyed when I discovered his other work with a mirror in my “vast archived”. Earlier I found his other print, so called An organist and his wife (c. 1495):

When I found this large convex (top left corner), it was also just “one of the building blocks,” in this case, of my story about ‘convex mirrors hanging in the vicinity of windows”, and as such it didn’t justify a separate posting.

It could, perhaps, if I would be able to decipher the text (?) written on the mirror frame –

but the quality of the reproduction I have at the moment doesn’t allow that.

But since this posting was eventually conceived and written  I’d take this opportunity to add a few more interpretative layers. Or rather give a word to Steve Evans aka Melles, the author of the well-known website about everything Medieval, called Scriptorium.   One of my readers (get_outdecided to join the investigation and sent a request someone to Melles, about these ‘mirror thingies’, and here is the responses re received:

The first question was about their name:

I have only ever seen these describer, in wills, as decorations. There were usually to do with religious belief, for example, a particular saint’s badge to increase the chance of bearing a healthy child (St. Margaret represented by pearls or by a dragon with a cross in its mouth).

In other words, Melles thinks that there was no special name for these things, besides generic ‘decorations’.

The second question was about their possible purpose and/or use:

The only source of light in the rooms was, of course, daylight which wasn’t available at night. The placing of mirrors was usually to reflect what little light obtained from candles and magnifying its effect. As the mirror would not be pif any use in dressing or makeup I would imagine that this was the purpose in your example.

Basically, he suggest that their use were mere functional, i.e., to somehow increase the presence of light in the dark rooms.

In the absence of any solid proofs so far I shouldn’t discard any opinions, of course. I personally believe there was a ‘name’ (perhaps even ‘names’) for these things, but then I have to find the proofs.

Also, mirrors were indeed used as light reflectors (in fact, they are ideas ones); but for that purposes I’d position then not inside these beds (like in the first print) but somewhere near (the second location fits better to this purpose). And then I also think that there was also cult/religious purposes of these objects, too; but again, more proofs are in need to say it with certainty.



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