Black Mirrors of St.Anthony

It so happened that all my recent postings were purely symbolic; the mirrors they depicted were devoid of any kind of ‘mirror functionalities’ and intended to only ‘hang & symbolize‘ (as an option, to be a symbolic offer). May be an aside note, but all these mirrors also symbolized something generally very positive.

I then decided to find the examples of somewhat more ‘working’, more active mirror; the ones that would ‘do’ something (or something would be done with them). Doing something more than justing at yourself, ‘the beloved one’.

With such rather vague a brief I ventured into the depth of my collection. I somehow assumed that the further I’d go through history from our times, the more such ‘active mirrors’ I’d find; this didn’t confirmed, but I blame the inherent biases of my collection (more on them later).

What I did find more prevalent is the use of mirrors by the (so called) Evil Forces, compared to the Good ones. I found a few interesting examples of how mirrors had been used with ‘peaceful purposes’, too, but those were way outnumbered by the ‘non-so-peaceful’ mirrors, both in terms of quantity and ‘diversity of application’.

In the past I wrote about the bewitched mirrors of Hans Baldung (and there I’ve also shown the works of few other masters). Those mirrors had been certainly at the service of Evil, but also somewhat ‘toothless’; themselves, they were doing nothing special. Another examples of the “evil mirrors” can be found in works by Hieronymus Bosch and – to some extent – by Albrecht Dürer. But again, we don’t see so much ‘actions with mirrors’ in these works.  In short, I wanted something more evident, more explicit.

It is in the course of such thoughts – and then searches – I came across the panel, a fragment of which is shown above. So, my story will be about this work (and also inevitably about many other things wrapping around).

Let’s look at the painting in full:

(I just would like to warn that this work is perhaps not tremendously demonstrative in terms of of how ‘mirror activity’ is shown, but a good start.)

Even without knowing so much about the ‘content’ and ‘context’ of this work, it soon become clear that the mirror is seemingly used here with evil purposes. Of course, at the first glance we nothing special, nothing worrying: there a saint (with a halo) and a lady (with a mirror). The mirror, however, is black – but maybe it’s just the result of old/faded paint?

Soon, however, we spot the birdy claws sticking underneath the lady’s dress, which most likely means that she is if not the Evil itself, than one of its agents, and intends to inflict some harm to the man (including with the use of the mirror.) 

The artwork was recently auctioned by the Sothebey’s, where it was described as The Temptations of Saint Anthony (c.1490), by Master of Girard (Catalonia).

This Master of Girard from Catalonia is a rather mysterious figure; very little information about him is available in the internet at the moment; there isn’t even the most basic article on Wikipedia (I understand it’s _the_ criterion, but still; I am actually always amazed when all these Sotheby’s and Christie’s are auctioning the works of little-known master and ask dozens if not hundreds of thousands of US dollars, yet are lazy enough to put even a small article about them to the Wikipedia).

But I also found nothing in the old paper sources either, at least in the most general are encyclopedias and reference books I am able to reach in our library; yet I didn’t search any specialized Spanish or, say, Renaissance editions).

The auction house itself is fairly laconic, with just one sentence: “was active in Catalonia during the second half of the 15th century.”

I found only three other art-works that are attributed to this Master (they look stylistically very similar to this one above). For two of them I have only very tiny copies:

One is with Demon being killed by St. Michael, another with the Serpent/Dragon, by St. George.

The third painting (also wooden panel, in fact) is the image of St. Anne (the mother of St. Mary, and the grandmother of Christ, correspondingly):

I was very surprised when discovered that the work is currently in one of the art galleries in Oakland (!), New Zealand (!!); namely, in the Auckland Art Galery Toi o Tāmaki. I have nothing against New Zealand, of course, but still find difficult to understand how on earth this medieval work could end up there.

Anyway, the gallery was the only source that also reported the full name of the master: he was called Pere Girard.

Their website also have an interesting story about restoration of this panel (created around 1470) by one of the gallery interns:

While being interesting per se, this restoration story doesn’t bring any additional insights into the meaning of the St. Anthony panel, thought; except, perhaps, the fact that they also show the fragment “before”:

which in turns shows how different was the painting color palette prior to the restoration.

Which, if course, raises the question about the Temptations, too: are these colors truly authentic? and specifically about the mirror – was it really that black? I mean, was it the true color intended by the author? But at the moment I don’t have a chance to answer the questions (and can only hope that sooner or later this panel will be also purchased by one of the museums or galleries and then sent to the restoration, too (it remained unsold at this time).

Similarly, I can’t really say if this mirror does reflect anything; I think that ‘something’ is there (but I always think so), but even it is true, I don’t see exactly what it is:

Technically (= optically) this shouldn’t be a reflection of this old man, but instead the image of the very viewer(s); the mirror is aimed directly at us. But again, what was the intention of the author is still not quite clear.

(By the way, it’s quite a large mirror in ‘real size; the panel’s height is 135 cm, so that mirror is about 10 cm in diameter, so in principle having the panel to hand would allow to explore it in more details, I think).

So, what remains is to go after the the “content” – in other words, to wonder what we know about Saint Anthony, and his the ‘Temptations’, and if it all would help us to better understand the meaning and the purpose of this mirror. Or, if to put it in a more academic lingo, what is the iconography of Anthony the Great, and what is the role that mirrors play in it.

This easy-to-ask a question is, of course, a catch, and the big one.

Saint Anthony, and especially his temptations, are among the most favorite subjects of myriads of artists for a long period of time. I think I can easily start a separate blog on this subject, with daily stories about the paintings depicting a wide variety of the “temptations” of this Saint, and this could easily last till my pension date (and this would only covered only the best-known art pieces). The rest of my pension I could then spend, well, on the rest:

The reasons for such a popularity are understandable, of course – the plot has been given an opportunity to depict all the existing men’s fears and nightmares, and also creatively invent new ones (and it continues to provide his opportunity up until now.)

And because this exercise in creativity has been planed for quite some time already, every new version is not only a reaction to (or an illustration of) the text, but also a reflection of many earlier attempts as well, which makes this maze already nearly infinite:

(This version of the Temptations is from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald).

Although the above scene shows not so much “temptations” but more like “torments” holy; the works that fall under the framework of ‘temptations’ are usually close to the following one:

This is a more recent work, created at end of the 19th century by Lovis Corinth; basically, on some basic structural level it does resembles the original panel by Master of Girard: an old man, and young ladies who try to seduce him (despite his visible resistance).

To understand the multitudes of – feet? hands? tails? breast? spikes? bottoms? – and many other interesting parts in all these works, we should to learn a bit about the story of this poor old man.

From the very start we may suddenly discover that he wasn’t always so old; in fact, Anthony started his ascetic life of a hermit while being quite young, when he was just 20 years old (= a student by our standards).

In this context, some of the first wave of his ‘temptations’ are perhaps better depicted in the paintings like this one:

(This is the work by John Charles Dollman, an English artist of the late 19th – early 20th century.)

And only later, after he managed to cope with these Temptations, his life was further burdened by various horrible – and Tormenting – creatures:

(This work is credited to Michelangelo.)

As I wrote already, I could easily fill the posting with hundreds of similar images, many of them mind-blowingly creative. But they all will add very little to my quest about the role of mirrors  in this story.

As usual, the “mirror” itself is not present in the story of Saint Anthony in any way (understandably); and if it does in some of the later paintings about this story, we need to interpret its appearance as an intervention of a particular master, and a reflection of the ideas and practices related to mirrors in his own time.

Before the panel of the Masters of Girard, for a long time I had only one other work in my collection where St. Anthony and a Mirror would meet; the painting created by Jan Mandijn, a Dutch artist of the 16th century:

It’s a complex composition, with many sub-plots, and one needs to search quite well before discovering a mirror here:

However, and despite a very macabre atmosphere of the scene in general, the mirror here doesn’t ‘do’ anything unusual. Yes, it is Death(?), in a form of half-rotted old woman, who looks at this convex mirror – but she sees in the mirror is the skull (or rather it is us who see the skull, while Death at this moment sees… us).

But all in all, it’s still a conventional use of a mirror.

Later I found another painting, which is in many way ‘warmer’ to the theam I am trying to unpack. This is the work by Pieter Huys, a not so much known follower of Hieronymus Bosch from Antwerp; more precisely even, the work is attributed to his workshop, and is dated around 1580:

Here in fact a combination of the Temptations and the Torments (a fairly common solution of the scene); but what interesting is that the woman is not simply holding the mirror, she is apparently ‘doing’ something with it:

I have only this small copy, and the work itself is also pretty small (16 x 22 cm), so I am not sure we will be able to detect if something is reflected in its convex surface.

It seems to me that this is the very St. Anthony. The mirror is not black, but instead it does not simply ‘reflect’, but rather actively shines. And the woman (with horns?) also holds more like a weapon than a delicate trinket from her toilet set.

These two examples were interesting, and somewhat informative, yet they didn’t resolve the puzzle created by the master from Catalonia (or from Valencia, as argue some other sources) named Pere Girard. It still remains unclear what exactly this lady with the chicken claws was planning to do with the old man, and how she was planning to use her small hand-held mirror with the dark surface.

On the other hand, we can sense some signals, from all these works, that the mirrors had been seen (and used) as a kind of ‘agents’, or the tools of some actions (seemingly ‘bad ones’ in this case).

A small remark: the ‘fire”, or ‘flames’ that burn at the feet of the lady are not related to her; this is a common iconographic marker of Saint Anthony, just like a pig, and the special T-shaped cross:

Even if not not fully sure what exactly is going on these paintings, I would still make an icon for the subject (even if only as the Black Mark for myself, to not forget to come to this theam later, with more information and insights):


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