Of the mirrors sensorial: Depiction of mirrors in the allegories of the Five Senses

I wanted to talk about the ‘Five Senses’ – not so much about the organs of perception per se, but about how this theme was depicted over time (and how mirrors played their role in this game). The posting of this sort are usually complex, they cover various painters, and different times, but they tend to be more interesting too. One issue that often complicates it even more is where to start.

I decided to start with this painting, although it’s neither the first nor the last example; it’s situated somewhat in the middle of this sensorial flow, but for some reasons I have a certain personal affinity with it.

I bumped into this painting two years ago, while visiting the Louvre (I sometimes can’t believe that I am with these ‘art-mirrors’ for so long already!)  Back then I wasn’t so ‘dead serious’ about this whole topic, yet I was already somewhat hooked, and was just ‘viewing the art-works’, but more into ‘mirror chasing mode’.

And yet I completely missed this painting – so invisible its mirror!  I should say ‘would be miss’, of course, because eventually I did find it. But it was quite a coincidence, and it all started with a very different work, this one:

It doesn’t have any mirrors, but it did captured my attention, somehow. And the reason for my interest was…

its complete stupidity.

This work is painted, really, really poorly, and in ‘real life’ things are even worser that in this picture.  My first feeling was that it had been made by a student, or a very young painter.  It proportions and perspectives are all wrong and the rendering of nearly all objects is very weak (look at the tray, for instance, it looks like it’s hanging in the air).

I first thought, ok, this may be an early study of some Big Shoot, one of those geniuses we always want to spot even in his childhood drawings.  But no, it was a completely new name for me, some Lubin Baugin 

May be it was one of those works whose value consists merely of age? The word is dated 1630, and almost four centuries do manifest themselves:

Despite my initial bemusement, I did like the painting at the end, even only because it’s very delicious:

At first I explored the glass, with its intricate reflections (of a window?) in both its think walls and mirror surface.  Then I inevitably started to eat this painting, its delicious gaufrettes as they are called in the description (by eyes, of course, not literally).

This type of cakes, gaufrette, is still made in France, and very popular here – my only feeling is that they got a bit thicker by now:

Was I bit too hungry at that moment? And therefore seduced by these dainties? Whatever the reason, but I looked at the other painting of this artist more attentively, and therefore spotted this mirror; otherwise I’d easily missed it, the painting was hanging in a dark corridor and looked completely unremarkably.

First, I was hooked on ‘food & drinks’ (see above on my growing before-the-lunch feeling); this loaf of bread is painted wonderfully:

I decided that it’s one of those still-lifes, with some food and flowers, that are aplenty of. But then I noticed the description of the work:

It’s a still-life indeed (so called Still Life with a Chess-Board – Nature morte à l’echiquier), but it made to depict a more interesting subject, which is usually referred as The Five Senses.

And this posting will be about this very subject, how it was painted over time, and what was the role of mirrors in it.

Today the usual depiction of the Big Five Senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) is a display of their corresponding sensorial organs, eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and palm – or finger, as in this case:

I put aside any elaborations on accuracy of this classification from the point of view of contemporary psychology/psychophysiology; as such, it is obviously very naive, yet still used widely, as the first approximation of the subject matter.

I am much more interested in the history of representation of this ideas, where we see a lot of whimsical, eccentric even, examples.  Look once again at the painting

Basically, we need to assume that around the middle of 17th century (the work dates from 1640) every (educated?) viewer would have to guess that it is indeed about Five Senses, and also decode which objects belong which senses.

In some cases it doesn’t look that difficult – for example, bread and wine that I showed earlier could of course represent Taste. The lute and musical scores could refer to Hearing, and money and playing cards,  to Touh:

The flowers can match Smell; the question remains, What does Chessboard symbolize? A Sense of Sense (Mind)?

But this interesting question aside, I am most interested in the Mirror – which apparently is in charge of Sight:

In fact, I always find a bit ironic the very use of any special objects to refer to Sight, or Vision, in such Five Senses compositions. The painting itself would be enough, I keep thinking, since we are ‘seeing’ it!  But these controversies could be also applied to any other objects, for example, we are ‘touching’ the strings of lute to produce music, and sensing the smell of its lacquer, too.

But the connection of a mirror with Sight/Vision is the most interesting here (even if only because of it’s the most recent technology shown here).  There was a moment in time when all these objects already existed (including the chess and glass vases), but mirror not. And how would they depict the Sight in such case? And when it became completely self-evident for people to connect mirrors with Vision?

A lot of interesting questions.  By the way, the mirror here is quite strange, it is dark and we don’t see its reflective surface (although the reason for that could be just its age, it’s almost 400 years old.)  There is a chance that it was intentionally made ‘black’, referring to the concept of ‘dark mirrors’ – although I would leave this idea out (or at least park it for moment; I am working on the posting about ‘dark mirrors’, and may come back this point a bit later).  It could be just the lack of proper restoration.

The mirror in a nice octagonal frame hangs on a wall, but too low to really use it; and yet it’s difficult to use it as a table mirror, too, so its actual usage pattern remain unclear.  

A few words about the author; in fact, it’s difficult to produce much more than a few words, we know very little about the painter.  The sources say that Lubin Baugin was born in 1612 (the other sources say 1610), in a relatively wealthy family in a small town of Pithiviers, a bit south of Paris.

Most likely he studied in Paris where in 1629 was accepted in the St.-Germaine-des-Prés guild, of painters, draftsmen and engravers. These still life works are most likely his earlier works, made before his trip to Italy, where he spent a few years in Rome.  When back, he finally settled in Paris in 1641, and then till the end of his life produced the paintings of that sort:

That are strikingly different style, compared to his previous works; both content (religious painting) and Raphaelitian paintbrush became very different.  An interesting case in terms of history of art, but the lost case for me, Baugin never returned to the Five Senses theme, nor he ever depicted a mirror.

His later transformation into a religious painter allows some art critics to also interpret his earlier works as the ones full of hidden meaning; for example, the objects on the Five Senses painting could be interpreted as an illustration of the eternal juxtaposition of Earthly and Divine Love (I don’t buy this theory, but note down it anyway, just for the record.)

My doubts are also caused (and supported) by the fact that this subject was widely painted by many other painters of that period, many of them having no specific affiliations with anything religious (to the extent possible for the time, of course.)

This is a somewhat similar still-life by other French painter, Jacques Linard. Here we see a very similar set of props to represent these Five Senses, including a mirror for the Sight (interestingly, but he also used another painting for this purpose – a painting IN the painting (!)

Jacques Linard – The Five Senses (1638)

The mirror here is a very small one, but it ‘works’, it does reflect (a pomegranate, for the record); I wonder what is in the boxes? Was it very clear for the viewers of the time?

Linard has another painting on this subject, even more elaborate:

Jacques Linard – The Five Senses and the Four Elements (1640)

Here we see not only the same Five Senses, but also so called Four Elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. A small square mirror is again used to represent the concept of Sight.

At some point I decided to figure out who was the earliest painter at this time (and place?) who started to depict this subject. Both Baugin and Linard were French masters, but Sebastian Stoskopff, who made a few earlier works on the this topic lived and worked in Strasbourg (currently a part of France, but by then belonging to the German Alsace (it wasn’t, of course ‘Germany’ in our sense of the world, and in fact soon the area would become French – Alsace was incorporated into France during the Thirty Year’s War, and Strasbourg became French in 1639.)   

But back to art. 

This is one of the still-life’s by Stoskopff that I found, and it is very similar to the painting by Baugin, with a bread loaf and a glass of wine. Only there is no mirror here, and it is not the Five Senses work, but just a nice one:

Sebastian Stoskopff – Still life with wine and pies on a pewter plate (c.1620)

Here the glass shows the play of reflections even more prominently, we see a whole mini-window on its walls. Stoskopff has a series of such ‘reflective’ (yet mirror-less) works:

Sebastian Stoskopff – Still life with basket of glasses (c. 1640)

Sebastian Stoskopff – Still Life of Glasses in a Basket (1644)

It is vividly noticeable that he enjoyed painting these glass surfaces that reflect one another, creating these sparkling puzzles; yet, as I said, there are no mirrors among them.

The first mirror of Stoskopff that I found is a part of a more conventional theme, Vanity:

Sebastian Stoskopff – The Great Vanity Still-Life (1641)

In principle, there a potential here to depict a very complex interplay of reflections, using those multi-faceted goblets together with the mirror, but the master doesn’t use it. Or may be does, to some extent, there might be some reflections in these ‘eyes’, but with the quality of the image I have at the moment I can’t say anything for sure.

The mirror is quite strange, by the way, it hangs on a wall, but it does have the doors, too, similar to the design we saw in ter Borch’s works.

But Stoskopff also have a more canonical Five Senses, and with the mirror (very similar by design to the one above):


There is a lot of interesting objects here whose meaning I don’t fully understand (for instance, the globe, or the (clock-looking?) object on the wall.  But the most striking difference between this work and the previous ones is the presence of the heroine, a lady with a bowl of fruits.  In some way it adds a value to the story of Five Sense. On the other hand it depreciates the whole game of guessing and decoding, since every human being brings her complete set of five senses with her by default.

In my search of even earlier examples I found one Dutch master called Dirk de Quade van Ravesteyn; of him and his life we know even less, and even the dates of his life, 1565-1619, are very approximate. It is believed that he was born in the North Holland (Haarlem or perhaps The Hague), but then worked in Brussels, and some sources are saying that he managed at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague around the 1600s.  His teacher is considered to be Frans Floris, a known Flemish master. 

I am providing all this background information to also stress that was quite a different time, compared to all the works I showed before. Look, for example, at these painting (that are attributed to him with a certain degree of certainty):

These are allegoric painting, similar by the style to the works of the  School of Fontainebleau, and early Baroque style in general. If to expect the mirrors in these works, then these should be the mirrors of Venus – and indeed, there is an interesting painting attributed to van Ravesteyn that presents the classical Toilette of Venus (1570):

The mirror here, of often happens,  demonstrates so the called Venus Effect, meaning that the goddess is not actually looking at herself in this mirror, but on us. The scene is resembling the works by Titian (and then by Rubens), but I can’t say if it was a copy of those, or am original development of a common theme by the painter.

I have recently found an amazing work, a very complex composition of multiple allegorical figures (allegories galore in this work, indeed!):

Dirk de Quade van Ravesteyn – An Allegory of Love and Fidelity with other Virtues and Vices

We don’t know it is his own work (it was described as as “van Ravesteyn and workshop”), and the exact date of this work os also unknown.  If I would judge by the – convex! – mirror depicted here (it is hold by the woman who is most likely representing the Love (Venus?), it is an earlier work by the master.

If I would have a better copy, we could try to understand what is reflected  in its surface (optically speaking, this should be the breast, which is, I need to add, a very innovate move):


But these work can serve a preface to the one I need to show in the context of this posting – the famous Five Senses by van Ravesteyn:


This painting is often described as An Allegory of Music, but with such interpretation the role of the mirror is not clear:


However, if we treat it as one of the examples of the Five Senses scene, we see the reason of showing many other objects (and figures – the guys on background should be carrying some trays with food, thus representing Smell, and Taste).  I don’t insist that this is THE most accurate interpretation, but it makes some sense.

If so, this painting may as a kind of path, between more ‘allegorical baroque’ of the end of 16th century and more realistic ‘post-baroque’ of the 17ht (which in terms of mirrors also meant the transition from convex to flat ones.)

The path becomes a wide boulevard in the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or more precisely, in the joint art project of him and Peter Paul Rubens.  This series, of jointly produced paintings depicting the Five Senses stories, are considered the best example of their art collaboration.  Both masters lived in Antwerp, and in business language were direct competitors, yet they their style and favorite subject matters were quite complimentary: Rubens was famous for his ample human figures, and Bruegel was without a rival when creating his ‘small worlds’.

This is what happened when the two masters were blending their efforts:

This is one of the five panels they created to illustrate the Five Senses theme (this is Sight); it’s linked to a much larger version, and I would also recommend to visit (at least the website of) the Museum Prado to have a look at the other four.

Of the mirrors; they galore here! I would not necessarily call all of them ‘mirrors’ in a narrow sense, but at least these are mirror-like things made of glass: we see one of those on the table behind Venus (is it a magnifying glass?) and another one on a table in front of her. Then there is (likely) a mirror behind the painting of a couple. Then of course the glasses at the monkey, a telescope and a looking-glass at the other monkey.

The same two painters created a few versions of this series, including a more compact one, where few Senses were depicted together on one painting – in this case, Sight and Smell:

In front of Venus we see the mirror and another glass gadget I would call a magnifying glass:

I call her ‘Venus’, but she might also be a more appropriate allegory: in this painting the woman co-exists with the Nativity scene. Apparently such combination didn’t pose any problems for the spectators and ‘users’ of this art back then (‘back then’ here means 1615-1620s where these series had been created.

The next work dates 1660:

and it is created by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (without Rubens, of course). The painting in many ways repeats the composition of the previous works, but it also has its own original element. What is interesting for me is that it depicts many mirrors (and non only optical instruments, of which there are plenty too).

One mirror is held by Venus herself (and it’s a very archaic one, for the time when this painting was created – here I assume that this is a convex mirror, but I could be wrong).   The monkey on a frame looks at another circular mirror, but the Cupid holds a large rectangular (and flat) mirror).

There is again this object on a table that looks like magnifying glass (but could well be a mirror too). I would say that this ‘mirror’ resembles the installations by Feliciano Béjar (of whom I also want to write, one day) but it would be a complete flip-flop of cause and effect.

Yet another mirror is more difficult to spot, it’s hidden behind the sculptures on the shelves:


If I would describe this long visual evolution of the Five Senses theme in a short summary, the story would go like that:

From the middle of the 16th century on they tend to portray highly allegorical scenes, populated with divine (Venus) or symbolical figures (e.g., allegories of Love, Prudence or Pride). Mirrors in these scenes had been used merely as the symbolic markers.

Then, roughly from 1600s onward, they moved to the depiction of the ‘still life’ (albeit with some moralistic meaning anyway), without the use of any figures or characters. The mirrors in this case became ‘just mirrors’, and common, everyday mirrors had been used as the models.

This is, of course, and incredibly simplified version, but it may work as a skeleton, as a placeholder to collect and organize more material around.

What is missing in this scheme is the moment when the figures were still there, but already didn’t carry any allegorical meaning (or at least did have such open, loaded allegorical content.)  I was looking for such a ‘missing link’, and found it in the works of another famous master, Dutch painter and engraver Hendrik Goltzius.

This is the famous ‘self-portrait’ of the painter’s burnt hand – or actually a slightly modernized version used by Peter Greenaway as a cover image for his recently releases movie Goltzius and the Pelican Company. I haven’t seen the movie yet, only the trailer and a few fragments; all I could say is that it’s very far from an accurate historical reconstruction (nobody would expect such thing from Greenaway anyway), but instead a highly imaginative spectacularly beautiful art work, which, I am sure, will make the name Goltzius as popular among so called ‘general public’ as the ones of Vermeer or Rembrandt.

Hendrik Goltzius is deservedly considered as one of the best engravers of his time, but his fame is limited by the circle of professional critics and researchers; I hope that the movie will be one of the steps to change it. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can still enjoy a large collection of his works in the newly opened online gallery of Rijksmuseum (my guess is that their collection of his works is the world-largest).

Here I only show his works related to the mirror theme (and even more narrow, to the Five Senses).

This is one of the earlier works by Goltzius, so called Allegory of Sight (1598):

We see a girl, who could be ‘just a girl’, or the goddess (not only Venus but, for example, Juno, another common name of the etching).

Below is a full-blown version of the Five Senses – it is not by Goltzius, but by Jacob Matham, another famous master of the time, but it is believed that it’s based on a similar work by Goltzius. Matham was a stepson of Hendrik Goltzius and later became his pupil.

Jacob Matham – The five senses (1588)

Basically we see here the same role for the mirror, to serve as a symbol, or a sign of the allegorical figure (of Sight, in this case).  This was not specific for the ‘Senses’, any concept could have been represented as a figure of (semi)naked woman – look, for instance, and the Seven Virtues of the same Jacob Matham. My bet is that it is Prudence who holds the mirror:

But look at the series created by Goltzius just ten years later, around 1610s:

This is the Sight part of the series; the mirror is still a bit archaic, but the couple is quite contemporary, and at least clearly no signs of anything ‘allegoric’ or even unrealistic. No, this is a very earthly couple, doing their flirting (one of the most flirting ‘art mirrors’ I found in the the works of old masters.)  This is also a somewhat personal work, the deformed hand of the dude resembles the one of Goltzius himself, a cameo of some sort:

Here are four other Senses, of various degrees of sensuality:

This series became very popular, and was reprinted many times (including mirrored reproductions):

In fact, some researchers believe that this version is original, because of the monogram HG on the frame:

Later these works inspired various remakes and homages, such as this one (by anonymous master):

NB: Just for the record, I mentioned some other mirrors of Goltzius in my earlier posting about Susanna and the Elders.

Also, and even earlier, I tried to explore a somewhat similar pattern, of shifting from High/Divine to Low/Profane (see Cycles of the Mirrors’ Meaning); in those posting I was arguing that it is the Classics that helps to resolve this neurotic oscillation.  But it looks that this new solutions creates its own – if not cycle, then the bubble, that wraps everything into the layers of symbolic meanings and their interpretations. Everything become allegoric (see also my recent posting about Iconology of Cesare Ripa).

The next resolution comes in a form of ‘real life’ (or course, it’s not yet real-real, but still very codified and normalized, but still it’s humanly normalized).  This will in turn create the need to break through Human, All Too Human, but it will come later.

This is the Allegory of the Five Senses by Pietro Paolini (c. 1630); it doesn’t have a mirror (I guess that it is glasses that are in charge of the the Sight), but here we see the next step, toward more ‘mundane life scenes’, rather than very much staged scenes of  Goltzius & Co.

Of course this ‘cultural evolution’ follows a much more complex trajectory that the linear progression I just described. I myself have examples of very different ‘moves’ (should I call them ‘jumps’?), when the Five Senses themes didn’t proceed to from allegorical to realistically depictions, but instead moved to even more codified framework, e.g., of religious interpretations.

I have a series of etching by Adriaen Collaert, Dutch painter who was specialized in religious work, and so his Senses are constructed as illustrations of various Biblical scenes. Here is his Sight:

On every panel we see one example of the Old Testament (here it is the scene of Adam and Eva seeing their nakedness in the Paradis), and of the New one – for instance, here it is the scene when Christ  heals the blind man.


The “icon” of this story can obviously be in the before & after style only;  “back then it was this way, and then became that way”.  As usual, there is also a kind of macro B & A: how I first thought about it all, and then how I learned new things and began to think differently etc. To reflect this bigger picture, I would need to construct a 3D-cube of some sort, unfolding over time. I didn’t manage with such 3D shape, and instead created this chart:

Here everything start with a Zero Point (depicted as a white dot with b&a in it), when nothing existed I knew nothing on the matter, and therefore didn’t feel any differance.

Then comes the first, basic b&a (b1 & a1), when one learns about about some developments over time; then the picture gets more complex (b2 & a2), and more complex etc. At any given moment I could have not only the representation of the historical developments, but also a memory of the evolution of my own ideas (that’s a very ideal case, of course, because we tend to suppress such meta-thinking; “I always knew there are pencils there“).  Better even, we can project such reflection into the future, anticipating even more complex understanding of the things, and thus our own further development (up until the Turtles of the Future ™)

It may look simple, as a normal process of learning: you don’t know something, then you learn, and you do. The difficulty is that it’s rarely a simple learning curve, but rather a more painful un-learning first, that starts from questioning your own basic assumptions, down to the very ‘water’.


2 thoughts on “Of the mirrors sensorial: Depiction of mirrors in the allegories of the Five Senses

    • Yes, very likely so.

      I think you also spotted various astronomical/navigational tools in the paintings of Bruegel/Rubens.

      By the way, I recalled one of the themes when I mentioned somethings related to astronomy. When writing about Cesare Ripa’s Iconology, I found examples of allegoric figures of Astronomy. I first thought they hold mirrors, but then I figured these are astrolabes. And now I also see the fragments of celestial maps – https://artmirrorsart.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/1221/

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