Mirror with a Siren

I have written already that I have found a large online collection of the medieval manuscripts and there, quite a few mirrors. This personal ‘discovery’ have dramatically changed my understanding of the matters I am writing about here, namely, depiction of mirrors in art works; at least, the timeframe of these ‘mirrors’ have been expanded greatly.)

(I am writing about these new archives in my recent posting about the Bathsheba mirrors I found in the manuscripts; by they way, I’ve added the third example there, may be it’s worth to look again at this posting.)

But back to the today’s mirror; or rather not today’s one, but to the 13th (!) century mirror! This is when the so called Ormesby Psalter is believed to be created.

The history of its creation is, as often happens, is obscure and full of mysteries. The book was apparently commissioned by some Robert of Ormesby, a wealthy gentry of the house of Ormesby. The manuscript was started at some point between 1290 to 1310’s, but it wasn’t completed, or rather, it was written for a long lime, with the latest addition dated around 1330, when the book became the property of the Bishop of Norwich. This is not so untypical a story, many manuscripts were created over the years, although the decades of production, as in the case this book, is still a rarity. Of course, the name of the master (or the masters – we can detect the hands of at least two different artists) remain unknown to us.

Technically speaking, this is a psalter, i.e., a collection of psalms (in the canonical versions their number is 150); often such volumes were supplemented by other appropriate things,  for example, by the gospels, or the calendars acts, the lives of some Saints, related to the commissioners.

But in this case the content of the book is of much lesser importance (for us, now, I should add) compared to the amazingly rich and detailed illustrations that form a parallel visual narrative.

The above splendid leaf (the title page of the book) belongs to the latest additions, in fact; the major part of the leaves look more modest, yet many of them also have beatiful initials and other pictorial elements:

Many of these images are much more than slightly embellished initials, we see very elaborate scenes, often with marvelous fantastic creatures. I’d love to see the Alices, both, illustrated in that maner.

Some pages have more images than the text, and the latter seems to be submerged in these visual worlds:

Often these are not isolated figures, but complex, interconnected compositions.

Because of the large number of all these beasts the book was often described as Bestiary, a compendium of real – and imaginary – fauna of the time (although when I say “imaginary”, we need to undersand that the authors could well have very different  considerations on the matters.) No matter how beautiful these creatures are, I can’t  show them all here, and can only recommend to have a look at the book, available in full at the website of the Bodleian Library at the Oxford University.

At one of these visually-rich pages I came across the following image (I start the posting with its zoomed-in version):

If the abridged version shows only “a woman with a mirror and a comb”, here we see an entire… creature!  Let’s have a closer look:

In the description she (or ‘it’?) is called ‘siren‘. Although the exact look of these mythological creates is debatable (some thought these were half-women/half-birds, some others believe that they were mermaid-looking and yet others think they were similar to woman), still the tradition usually depicts the sirens as women-with-fishy-tails.

Here we see a more complex, four-legs creature, it’s almost a she-centaur, or centaurid.  Sometimes such a hybrid creations were called chimeras – yet this is also not quite a canonical chimera, with its characteristic lion body and three heads of different animals.

In any event, this creature does not look particularly pretty and one shouldn’t expect a great amount of good deeds here.  Surprisingly for such ‘evil’ character, it borders with ever-peaceful Mary and the Child Jesus:

This is not the most striking example of ‘mirror work’, perhaps, but given that it is the image of thirteenth century (!), we must recognize that’s a true masterpiece (even if we will have to move the date to bit later, say, the beginning of the next, fourteen century, it’s still mind boggling: just imagine, it 13.. and let’s say, also 13. 1313, that’s Seven Hundred Years-old an image of woman looking quite intently in the mirror!

It is evidently a glass mirror, accurately framed, with elements of decoration on the frame. Although the woman seems to be looking slightly off the mirror, her overal pose and coherent orchestration of other parts (the arms, her head, the mirror, the comb) is pretty remarkable.

Currently the mirror is dark (black even), so it may seem that we see an illustration of the Dark Mirror motief (and I mean here not the recent movie or TV series, but an ancient systems of believes into magical/evil properties of such mirrors. I would ideally have to link it to my own posting about these Black Mirrors… but it’s not written yet.)

But anyway, this mirror is not of that kidney; most likely, in the original version the mirror was quite bright, in fact, it could even be painted with silver or other alloy, so that the spot would indeed reflect something, acting as a true tiny ‘mirror’ in the book.  

Or the mirror could have had some sort of reflection, like woman’s face. Currently we don’t see any signs, at least with a naked eye (if something is there, it is covered by patina and/or oxidized, and more careful examination is required.)

After two years of my amateurish studies and a hundred of posting I became more careful with sensational conclusions, “Here is the very first modern glass mirror, as shown in a manuscript!” and suchlike. You write it in the morning, and by the afternoon  somebody (may be even yourself) finds a hundred years older mirror. But sill, it’s quite a push, almost one hundred back in time, compared to the previous candidate, the mirror of Christine Pisan.

By now I know few more examples of the mirrors older that the “Pisan’s one”, but I will talk about them in a separate story. Besides the time aspect, this mirror also begs to explore the issue of mirrors and other “non-human” beings – for example, mermaids. Yet emerging theme is the Forces of Evil with a Mirror; I touched this topic here and there, but never wrote a dedicated posting on it.

(To avoid confusion – this is not an actual work, but a a collage of the two tapestries from the Angers Apocalypse).



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