Mirror of the Master of Death

I was asked recently, by one of the readers of my Russian version of this blog, to inform them in advance about the coming postings:

“If I’d know a theme of scheduled posting, I would better prepare, read some stuff beforehand; otherwise I always come unprepared; wow, what a new world!” [this is not an exact translation, but more of a paraphrasing]

I have a forking point in reacting to such comment: one possible direction is that even if would have any ‘plans’ of postings, I’d rather *not* share them, because it would spoil the pleasure of these mini-discoveries I am making (and then describing in my postings). But that’s a fairly hypothetical version.

Second, and much more realistic one is that I don’t have any ‘plan’, or ‘program’ for the postings here, they somehow self-emerge, as if ‘out of nowhere, often surprising myself. This is, for example, exactly the case with this particular posting, about the Mirror of Master of Death, whom I know nothing about as later as this morning.

Well, first, this is not exactly Mirror in Art – it’s more Art Around Mirror. It is indeed a mirror, rather old one, but still not the medieval one, despite the look & feel of the surrounding illuminations. The mirror, and its frame, are both dated by the middle of the 19th century. But the illuminations are really very old, they are taken from a manuscript of the late XIV century.

How and when exactly did the mirror fall in the hands of French baron Adrien Dubouché, is not so known, and so the story of its production is now difficult to reconstruct. The baron collected a lot of art, and very diverser, including not only paintings and prints, but also porcelain, and lots of crafts, hence, he could be interested in such a ‘thing’, too (which he did, and the mirror ended up in his large collection.)

Some parts of the collection are now for sale, and you can even get this very mirror, if you are ready to part with about 10-15 k euros. At the site they show a few of the set of illuminations flanking a mirror; in case it will disappear, I will also copy them here, too:

At a first glance, this is a very strange set. It is not Passion of Christ, like in the Arnolfini mirror (although there it is also not exactly the Passion, but it’s off topic now). Some of these miniatures clearly depict biblical (even evangelical) themes, but with some other I can be so sure.  There are no mirrors in them, unfortunately, otherwise it would be a very clever, too clever a trick.

The majority (20 of total 22) of these illuminations are credited to some Remiet Perrin, the French master at the court of Charles V; the other two are apparently by another master, but also from the same time, the end of the XIV century.

Pierre Remiet is also known as the Master of Death, a nickname coined by Michael Camille, the author of the eponymous book:

The name was apparently well deserved, because of the abundance – and skill of depicting – of everything violent and macabre: death, executions, tortures, martyrdoms, and suffering flesh in general.

(The book is announced as the study of “not just the life and death of a single medieval artist, nor a society’s obsession with the macabre, but the relation between mortality and image-making itself“. Sounds interesting, I would read it, if I could get it in my hands, one day).

But now things start getting a bit more clear: if we accept that these miniatures are by the Master of Death, then we can understand the logic of the creators of this artifact. They basically wanted to make a kind of Vanity Mirror, with an embedded Memento Mori message; something similar to the skulls and bones that are often placed next to the the mirrors on the paintings (and a good hint for contemporary designers).

Mirrors with the skulls have already appeared in this blog, most recently in my story about mirrors and candles by De La Tour), but perhaps it’s worth to ‘plan’ a separate posting about these issues.

But this one, unplanned, is over 🙂



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