Speculum ursus pontufex

This posting is written with an ‘economy of scale’ attitude in mind: I’ve just written – yet another, I should add – a posting, about the ‘so called mirrors’, those strange mirror-resembling objects that tend to lurk in (or near) the beds of St.Mary, or her mother St. Anna, and another “female bedrooms” (although I do have the case of a perfectly male bedroom, too.) With some stretch I can even demonstrate a few far-from-bed examples. Still, many of these examples of artworks would skew to purely female-&-matrimonial themes (we can read ‘purely’ also a reference to Speculum sine macula).

And yet I always had a background thought that there should exist a more general meaning behind all these ‘mirrors’. Some sort of a concept, and a practice, that would exist before this new technology, a glass (convex) mirror, would appear. The one that would eventually appropriate this new technology, ‘hack’ it for its own purposes (of course, also being transformed by this technology as a result of such appropriation, too).

Such concept or practice could be Christian (e.g., something like an ‘God All-Seeing Eye’), but it could also be pre-Christian, for instance, a common symbol of power or might, expressed as the Light, or the Sun etc. 

But all these thoughts were rather idle. I didn’t see any artifact that would support it (except, perhaps, the panel of the Marriage at Cana, with Christ and a Mirror – there the ‘mirror’ is indeed occupying a truly throned place. But a general context of the scene was still matrimonial, so the meaning of the mirror was not completely clear to me.)

Finally I got it! I found one of those ‘so-called mirrors’ that occupied a place completely alien to any traditional mirror functions or conventional application of mirrors. Basically, the only option for this ‘mirror’ is to be purely symbolical. The question remains, of course, what does this ‘symbolism’ mean. But it’s already a good point to start with 🙂

Now, the story itself.

The Who

The name of the alleged author of this painting is simple, Jan, but the surname of the Flemish artist is bit more perplexed, van Coninxloo: Jan van Coninxloo.

I wrote “Flemish”, but this name sounds more like the French one, or rather, made-French. According to some sources, the master was born in Brussels in 1489 (?), in the artistic family; according to some sources, he already belonged to the sixth (!) generation of this artistic family.

A short article on Wikipedia provides a whole collection of versions for his surname – Ccninxlo, Conninxlo, Connixlo, Cooninxloo, Conixloo. But it also says that he was known as Schemier too (more likely Schmier, ‘oily’ in German).

Such name could well be a nickname – for example ‘konijn’ in Dutch means “rabbit, bunny”; ‘rabbit jump’, for example, would be “konijn sprong” – which could eventually migrate into conixloo. Why not?

On the other hand, the word “royal” in Dutch is “koninklijk”, which seems to be quite close, too. It is known, for example, that his more successful brother, Pieter van Coninxloo (also an artist, of course), was doing some work for Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, and even got a title of the ‘court painter’.

But in reality this is all hot air; that article on wikipedia is the only easily available source, and yet it is just an exact replica from the so-called Dictionary of painters and engravers, biographical and critical (published as early as 1886; yeah). I’ve got a fairly large volume in my library on Antwerp Mannerism, and it doesn’t mention any of the Cooninxloos. In short, an interesting area for further investigations, as they write in academic journals.

The What

This complexly composed painting is supposedly to depict The Scenes from Life of Saint Ursula. It is painted presumably around 1540s. It’s relatively large, about 80 x 80 cm, oil on wooden panel; sold recently at Sothbeys’ for 25,000 euro.

To tell the life of Saint Ursula is a challenge (both visually and verbally), and it always has been. This is one of those stories that are easily sufficient to make a huge, three-part Hollywood blockbuster, and there will be always a room for equally huge a sequel. Below is something in a genre of gross-simplifications told only with the purpose to make some sense of what we see on the painting.

If you sometimes go to the museums, and there also read the plates near the paintings, then the combination of the words “Saint Ursula” may trigger visual associations of that kind:

Most often, this is about a sea/river, ships carrying tons of people, and a mass slaughter of some sort.

And yes, roughly speaking, this is the essence of the story.

It should be noted that this particular painting is from theWallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, the place that has the most direct and immediate connection to St. Ursula. Therefore, there you can also find even more impressive pieces, such as this one:

Compared with this grand 16-pieces martyrology the panel by van Coninxloo is, well, not much more than a hasty digest. But on the other hand, he’s not from Cologne, so forgivable.

Below is a story of St.Ursula, but in an extremely condensed way, only to the level that would help to understand the plot of the artwork.

Originally Ursula was a princess, a daughter of some ‘British king’. Since it was in the fifth (or even in the fourth century AD),  we can rather talk about the heads of regional clans, the very idea of ‘Britishness’ wasn’t there yet. As a possible candidate researchers call a semi-legendary Welsh king Dionotus.

The princess was, of course, very smart, beautiful… and also happened to be Christian; of course, the suitors were in in plentiful amounts. Unfortunately, most of them were, well, Barbarians (that is, heathen). One of the candidates was more powerful and more persistent than other; he was a king, too, and not so easy (and perhaps to so wise) to discard. Again, among the possible candidates researchers name some Conan Meriadoc).

At some point Ursula agreed to mary him, but only if a couple of her small requirements will be fulfilled first. First, her future husband had to convert to Christianity. Second, he had to forward ten (10) “pious virgins” (understandably, all noble ladies) to Ursula, each accompanied by a thousand (1,000) virgins. One more thousand virgins were to be provided by her a father; my calculation scores at 1 + 1000 + 10 + 10×1000 = 11,111 virgins in total.

And yes, this entire swarm of virgins had to be provided with the ships, and allowed to tour for three years. All these (insane, if you ask me) conditions were nevertheless met in full; all the ladies and their multitudes of virgins came to Ursula (and soon converted to Christianity, of course) and set the sails to the sea.

Some historians believed that Rome had been their destination from the beginning; others suggest that the plans were not so precise at the start. After the ships crossed the Channel, they moved into the rivers (Rhine, assume), bound Cologne (technically speaking it also means that they had to have two sets of ships, but that’s the details).

According to the legend, in Cologne Ursula had her first ‘vision’. In this vision she was directed to Rome (some sources also say that she already by then know that she’d come back to Cologne and die here).

The ships with all their virginal crowds sailed up to Basel, where from the procession started walking to Rome on feet (through the Alps, apparently). In Rome they met the Pope named Cyriac (? – there is Saint Cyriacos, but he wasn’t the Pope, and lived much earlier; the official Vatican records say nothing about such Pope).

Anyway, the pontific they found in Rome was apparently so impressed by all this virginal procession, that he decided to resign and join their ranks in the travel back to England.

On the way back, exactly as ‘predicted’, near Cologne, the virgins had been met by the Huns. “Something went wrong there”, as we can guess; basically, all the girls died, including Ursula herself, who refused to marry the Chief of Tribe who offered his hand and heart, and was executed as a result.

I will come back to these ‘historical events’ later, but first would like to comment ton the painting, in view of this story.

The scene in the background could mean a conversation with the Ursula’s father, whom she perhaps explains her trip plans. Perhaps, she is also receiving his letter to the Pope:

Further clockwise we see the arrival of the crowd – yet Cologne? or already to Rome? The latter is more probable, since they are greeted by a procession of high priests headed by the guy in tiara.

Is the next scene a conversation with this Pope? (perhaps when he already decided to resign? – the man doesn’t have a tiara, and also lack many other pontifical elements in his dress):

Maybe it’s not Rome yet, but still Cologne? and this is the ruler of the city (his hat is amazingly ‘German’)?

In the main scene, on the foreground, Ursula gives the letter to this ruler (Pope, King?), who is now sitting on the throne.

But I amy be altogether wrong with all these interpretation, and the details may mean something else. This panel doesn’t look complete, or rather it might be only a part of larger work (a triptych, for example). It misses the most striking moments of this stories, large crowds on the ships sailing (could well be the left panel), and then the scene of gigantic massacre (the right one). 

Such triptych could have been commissioned by one of the churched named after St.Ursula, and/or could be a piece of dedicated ‘propaganda’ used to support the translation of relicsTo explain what does this ‘translation’ mean, I need to go back to the story, or a history of this story.

Needless to say, because of its tragic developments and also a sheer, albeit a bit surreal scale, the story of St.Ursula was tremendously popular in the medieval Europe.

There were, of course, skeptics too, who found the whole story if not completely fabricated, then at least grossly exaggerated. The very number of all these virgins was definitely hard to imagine ‘for real’; perhaps, it was ten, may be a hundred of the girls, but not the eleven thousands.

There are many versions of how this number could have emerged. For example, according to some sources, the maid’s name was not Ursula, bu Ximillia, and at some point it was (mis)read as a number: in that way XI.M.V. – Eleven Thousands M.urdered V.irgins. There is another version that Ursula was in fact a very young girl, of eleven years (undecimilia), which with time has become undicimila (11,000).

But then, around the tenth century AD, during the construction of a new city walls in Cologne they discovered a large burial, suspiciously with the female bones only; and huge quantities of them. Such a discovery ignited a hysterical surge of interest in the St.Ursula legendary story and made a belief in it almost unquestionable.

This also soon manifested in a mass-scale pilgrimage to Cologne from all over Europe. One of the main hopes for many pilgrims was to get some of these bones as relics that could be brought back to their native lands. This spread of relics through Christendom was called not transportation, but translation, and the translation was going on so vigorously that the relics from Cologne can be now found everywhere from Madrid to Riga, despite the fact in the late 14th century the process was legally banned.

Part of the reason for the ban was also a huge and flourishing market of counterfeit relics (which could very well be true bones, and often even female ones (not sure about the “virginity”), but in any case much more contemporary ones than those from the times of the alleged St.Ursula’s journey).

In response to this market (mis)developments, the church monopolized the distribution of the relics, and eventually organized this business in a serious way, for example, with the marcom materials and appropriate visual aids (such as this painting, perhaps).

It’s all very interesting, but what about the mirror?

A convex mirror is prominently mounted on the throne, right above the head of the ruler (the Pope? the King?) In any case, the mirror is outside of any possible convectional application of mirrors: it’s not for toilette, hardly even to gaze in it at all. It’s not to ‘add more light’ to the room, and any other similar ‘use cases’.

Its role here is purely symbolical, although the exact meaning of this symbolism depends on our understanding on who is on this throne. If this is the Pope, it can be a reflection (sic!) of his pontifical power; if a King, of his royal might (Rex=Sun).

But as such, this throned mirrors itself manifests a lot in the context of my stories, and its role is quite pivotal.

I can say with any certainty if there is anything reflected in it: 

Technically (=optically) speaking, the maximum of what we could see there would be his funny hat.

It just so happened that I found this and the previous mirror almost at the same time – this one just a week before, and it was easy to spot high similarity of their designs (minus the bow on the mirror of Master of 1518).


2 thoughts on “Speculum ursus pontufex

  1. 1 + 1000 + 10 + 10×1000 = 11,011. The factor 1000 may have been a clerical error anyway. But it was very welcome since 11,000 virgins provide many more relics for sale.

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