Sacra oculi, or Curriculum with a mirror

The portrait of this comely buy is currently in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam . Thanks to its cuteness, but also because of the hyperactive activity of the museum’s souvenir shop the portrait has became widely famous, a token of some sort for the museum. Yet even excessive commercialisation aside, the artwork is indeed very significant in the history of Dutch art (there is even a postal stamp issued commemorating the painter – Jan van Scorel).

As often happens with art blockbuster, they become famous but lose their meaning; very few people now would see more than just a portrait of cute young boy and can truly understand – and appreciate – how radical and ideologically loaded this portrait was at the time of creation (1531 год).

There are no mirrors on this specific portrait, and none are on many other paintings of this master; I found only one work by Scorel with a mirror so far, but to tell its story I would have to start from far away, and tell about many other paintings first – including this one.

The boy has just finished writing the following sentence: Oia dat dominus non habet ergo mius,  which is usually translated as ‘The Lord gives all, He possesses no less for it’, or in a more simple version ‘The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away’.

And yet another moral message is written in the painting’s ticker: Quis dives? Qui nil cupit. Quis pauper? Avar’ – “Who is rich? He who has nothing. Who is poor? A miser’, which is not only one of founding principles of the Christian moral code, but also an exact quotation from the De civilitate morum puerilium by Erasmus Roterodamus, Dutch Renaissance theologian and philosopher, and the key figure of the Protestant Reformation. Before I will venture into philosophical and ideological meaning of these sayings, I would like to say a few worlds about the painter first.

To be honest, I am still waiting for the day when someone would write a Il nome della rosa type of novel about Jan van Scorel, the Dutch master of the first half of 16th century.

Jan was born in 1495 in a small village called Schoorl, near the town of Alkmaar in the north of Holland. It is believed that his name (van Scorel) comes from the name of his birthplace. Very little is know about the early years of his life, but it is assumed that he got his first education – and perhaps his training as a painter – in the Benedictine Abbey of Egmond, one of the oldest and largest in the Netherlands at that time. He could start his studies in the same abbey, as an apprentice with more experienced illuminators, but can also travel to Haarlem, or to Amsterdam, or even further south, to Utrecht, with its famous school of painting.

The critics see an impact of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and Maarten van Heemskerck on the earlier works by van Scorel (both above masters worked in Haarlem, the city where Jan van Scorel was registered in 1517). But later in 1524 he enrolled as pupil of Jan Gossaert (also known as Jan Mabuse), in his workshop in Utrecht. In general, it is the so called Utrecht School that influence is most noticeable in the early works by Skorel.  Below are jus a few examples of his portraits:

For some of these portraits we know people who are depicted on them (for example, the first one is some Cornelis Aerentsz van der Dussen, the city secretary of Delft, and the woman on the third is Agatha van Schoonhoven, the artist’s wife (I’ll talk about them later.) The exact information about other is lost by now, and we know them as a Portrait of Man or a Portrait of a Nobleman, but in any case all these portraits are the great examples of the Utrecht portrait school.

The artist painted not only individual but group portraits, too, and it seems that he was particularly skilled in making them. Here is is just example, the multifigured portrait of the members of the Utrecht Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims:

one of the most apparently, it was a peculiar his skate, here are now polynomial portraits:


This works shows five brothers, but there are his most famous portrait depicts twelve members of the fraternity (I have only a very small copy at the moment, will try to get a bigger one, hopefully soon).  Perhaps a tangent, but I find very interesting the fractal shapes of their crosses:

Apparently his connections with this Order, and with the church as a whole has been wider and deeper than just a painter and his model(s); most likely, he himself was a member of the brotherhood, and there are also some evidences that earlier in his youth he had plans to become a priest, not an artist. Most likely, it was through the network of the fraternity that made his trips across Europe in the 1520s, when he first visited a few principalities in Germany, then travelled to Vienna, then to Venice, and finally to Rome.

However, this was not only a religious pilgrimage, using various opportunities he tried to also study the craft of painting on a way. For example, he managed to spend some time in the workshop of Dürer in Nuremberg, and possibly few other workshops too. In some of his works we can also see a German trace (though their authorship is being disputed):


The Death of Cleopatra

Adam and Eve


But speaking about influences, the most visible was, of course, the impact of Italian masters. Scorel should have been impacted by the style of Giorgione – even if couldn’t meet him in person (Giorgione died in 1510), many of his works should be still available to see in Venice. The most striking manifestation of this impact it the landscapes that Score stared to depict after his trip to Italy; he did use them before in some of the paintings, but here we see a very different take, when landscape becomes one of the most important ‘heroes’ of the painting:

I found only very dark copy of the painting above (so called Landscape with Tobias and the Angel) on the Google Art Institute’s website; there are lighter, but smaller copies of this work too, and frankly I don’t know which version is more accurate. But color palatte aside, we clearly see the complexity of the world on the background of the painting :

After these Italian trips the portraits of Scorel has also became looking very differently; they now have elaborate backgrounds, that only adds more depth and atmosphere, but allows to add more meanings and overtones to the work:

The impact of the Italian masters on his works is clear, but what even more important is that van Scorel also transferred this influence on many more masters in his native Netherlands, thus forming a bridge between local Dutch art schools and the Italian movements (he might be compared to Georg Pencz who also worked as a ‘bridge’ between Italian and German art, though the impact of van Scorel was apparently much stronger).

In 1522 the the College of Cardinals in Rome has elected the new Pope, Adrian VI, known as Adriaan Boeyens; to my knowledge he was the first and the only Pope from the Netherlands. He was born in Utrecht (to be precise, it wasn’t the Netherlands yet, Utrecht was a part of Burgundy, which was itself a constellation of different fiefs), and some sources suggest the young van Scorel could even meet the future Pope. This, however, looks unlikely, since Adriaan Boeyens spent most of his life in Leuven, where he eventually became a vice-chancellor of the Leuven University. Among his disciples was, by the way, the young Erasmus, and he was also a mentor to Charles V, the future Emperor of the Holy Empire. And in the early 16th century, that is, during the childhood and teenage years of Jan van Scorel, Adrian lived in Spain, where he became the Cardinal.

Pope Adrian was elected in absentia, he even hadn’t been to Romepreviously. His election was a symbolic act, in some way resembling the rise to the Papal power the contemporary Pope Francis. As it is today, when many clerics of the Catholic church and people from the congregation (and even more people outside of it) felt extremely unhappy with the developments in the church, then many Catholics were also dismayed with chaos and corruption prevailing in Rome. Before coming the Pope Leo X in 1513, Giovanni de Medici was a typical representative of the powerful Italian house that was never know for its respect to the law. But his ruling broke even the very modest expectations; for instance, he wasn’t even a priest when elected the Pope, he was ordained and made ​​the Cardinal retroactively. He and his court became a symbol of brutal and lustful elite despising any rule of law and bathed in an unheard of luxury. He spent most of the Church’s savings to please himself and his friends, and when faced with the lack of funds initiated the sales of indulgences, corrupting everything and everyone all over Europe (and essentially triggering the rise of Reformation).

When I was writing, already some while ago, about Raphael and his (lack of) mirrors, I happened to show the portrait of Leo X, with the glasses (Raphael was, by the way, one of the most favorite artists of Giovanni de Medici). Leo X died too suddenly to not conceive the idea about not-so-natural course of events, and his very death was an indication of the desired changes in Rome, shared at least by some clerics and nobility. Yet when elected as the new Pope, Adrian was not in a hurry to arrive to Rome. He was well aware of what was going on there, and was aspired to change it as much as possible, but he also knew that he will face significant resistance, on a border with life threats.

He finally arrived there in 1522 and even started some reforms (for example, he ordered the closure of the Belvedere, the symbol of unbridled luxury of the Papal court; or rather, he ordered to reform it into a museum). And here comes the link to my story today: it was Jan van Scorel who was appointed as a head of the Belvedere’s collection, in charge of its transformation into a public museum (to note, he replaced the very Raphael on this post). Jan van Scorel was a relatively young man by then, he wasn’t even 30 years yet; my guess is that he was recommended by one of orders close to the Pope (for example, it could have been the very Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims, of which he was likely a member). But eventually Jan has also gained the trust of the new head of the church himself, to the extent that Adrian commissioned his papal portrait to the artist. This work didn’t survived till now, but it is believed that a very accurate is now kept in the Utrecht’s Centraalmuseum:


These, and many other actions of the new Pope, could not but cause some, shall we say, lack of understanding on the part of the local elite. In September 1523 Adrian died, having been on the Papal throne in Rome less than two years; he was only 64 years old by then, and the cause of his death is unclear until now. It’s always difficult to speculate, but the European (and the world) history may be very different should he lived longer – he was an active peacemaker and, in particular, sought active cooperation and with the growing Protestant movement, that was keen to radically reform the Catholic church that compromised itself massively by that time. The new Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici in the world) has quickly reinstalled the status quo, and managed to make the things even worser still. It was during his ruling Rome experienced the terrible terrible Sack of Rome (1527), the split of the Churches and the tide of Reformation, and many other unpleasant things.

Well, ‘unpleasant’ is not only subjective, but also a relative term; for example, the very fall of Rome was terrible for many artist, but eventually created the foundation for the news schools of art outside of Italy (the School of Fontainebleau in France is just one such example.)

For Jan van Scorel the death of the Utrecht Pope of course meant an immediate dismissal, and most likely the urgent need to flee from Rome. It is interesting that he decided not to return immediately to Holland, but instead when to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; I do not know exactly how and where he could get at that time, since in 1517 Jerusalem was captured by the Ottoman Empire. I guess it was not impossible to travel to the Middle East, but in any case it was quite an adventure; perhaps it was one of the rules of his Order. In any case, this tip is considered a very important step in his artistic development, since at the end it would significantly widen his knowledge of art, architecture and, for instance, engineering solutions.

In 1524 van Scorel returns to Utrecht, where he experiences quite meteoric rise, both as an artist and as a teacher, a guru of new techniques and methods in painting. He is considered one of the main importers of the Italian Mannerism to the Netherlands. If one would look , for example, at his works in those post-Italian years, he would immediately notice their sharp difference from from his previous style:

Lamentation of Christ with a Donor (c.1535)

(As often happens, my story is making a lot of tangents not related to any ‘mirrors’, but here we see something that at least somehow resembles – if not a ‘mirror’, than a mirror-like effect):

There are a couple of interesting moments: first, the bottle is rarely present in this scene (more often it’s a jar with ointment carried by Magdalena).  This bottle also reflects a mirror – not exactly an expected object in the vicinity of the place of Jesus’ execution.  And finally – though I can’t confirm it now – the refelction may also contain the image of the painter himself, a cameo appearance of the Renaissance age.


The Holy Family (c.1530)


Adoration of the Magi (c.1540s)

This work also has an interesting object, an orb held by one of the Magi (or King), traditionally identified as King G(C)aspar.

Again, I would assume that it may have a reflection, if not the painter, but at least the King himself; but the quality of the copy I have does not allow to make any conclusions.

During his long life van Scorel created a huge amount of works, both religious and secular:

He was one of the most prolific painters of his time, and his altarpieces could still be found in many churches in the Netherlands (such as this triptych in the Grote Kerk in Breda:

– and that having in mind the iconoclastic riots in the Netherlands in the middle of 16th century! Many of his works had been destroyed during these times, and yet he was so productive that we still have many left. I keep looking for the mirrors in his paintings (there should be more of them there!), and yet until recently I found next to nothing.

Even such a mirror-prone subject as the story of Bathsheba and David he managed to avoid depicting a mirror (almost a must-have for his colleagues, both Italian and Flemish.)

Alas, no mirrors 😦

(though this painting is a great example of the so called ‘creative laboratory’ of the master shown to us, the spectators; the paintings remained unfinished and we see the different stages of the process superimposed as uncompleted layers.  David, for instance, is still not painted : )

In one of the triptychs by van Scorel, The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1526)

… I found a rather interesting object, a clasp of the bishop’s cloak:

My interest here is two-fold: the gem in the center may actually work as a small ‘mirror’ (i.e., it may have a reflection of some objects (a window?) reflected in to. But I would also like to learn about the actual artefact, how and why these clasps had been used, and what could be the meaning of the gem. In fact, it looks too big to be a real precious stone (it could well be it, of course, but could also be a small convex mirror, used to decorate the clasp (and perhaps also add a special meaning to it, that is not fully understandable for us now).

Interestingly, but he was creating all these numerous works being ordained – I do not know exactly what was rank in the Church, one of the sources describes it, rather evasively, as “an official of the Catholic Church” (I have some doubts, though, about “Catholic” part in this description, most likely it was Protestant one; for example, we was married, which is no-go in Catholicism. I’ve shown above the portrait of his wife, Agatha, and they had four children).

By the end of his life he became the ultimate guru for many painters in the Netherlands, a head of a large workshop with a lot of pupils and followers. He died in 1562 in Utrecht, which became his home town. However, his monument is now standing in his native village (the photo is not mine, I found it in the Internet):

Utrecht, of course, considers him as ‘own’, Utrecht’s painter, and is very proud of him (never mind that the majority of van Scorel’s works had been destroyed in this very city). Few years ago the local museum held a major exhibition of his work (the title says ‘Scorel’s Glory: How a painter from Utrecht brought Renaissance to the North):

This is his own portrait, made by one oh his pupils,  Antonis Mor.

* * *

Now, where is the mirrors, one may ask. Of course, all the above was very interesting, but in some way is only a preface to my main story, about one mirror I found in his work.

As I have already written, Jan van Scorel could have traveled to Jerusalem during his pilgrimage. I don’t know whether he actually made it or not, or whether he was also creating any works while travelling (unlikely, but you never know). In any case, one of his work is currently in the church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. The picture below show how the church looks from the outside:

And below is allegedly one of the sacral places, the very rock where St. Stephen was stoned to death (it’s now inside the church):

St. Stephen is one of the first martyrs in Christianity (and for that matter he is referred as not just a martyr, but a Protomartyr). It is believed that he was a deacon in one of the first Christian church in Jerusalem, but was announced as a ‘blasphemer’ by the representatives of several local synagogues, tried, made an incredibly strong diatribe during the process, and for that stoned to death.

I have no idea as yet of how and when the Church has received this large polyptych by Jan van Scorel:

It depicts the life of St. Augustine, a revered Christian theologian (though I am not aware of any specific link between him and St.Stephen). As I already wrote, I don’t know if van Scorel made this work during the trip or later; I even don’t know when exactly this polyptych was created, and I found only this poor copy of the whole work so far.

Fortunately, I have a bit larger copy of one of the panels of this polyptych, showingSt. Augustine teaching in the class:

Now, that a VERY interesting work, and I guess it’s clear what makes it so interesting to me: not the teaching process per se (though it connects, in a but funny way, this work with the very first portrait I’ve started this posting from, of the learning boy), but the mirror on the back wall of the classroom, hanging between the windows.  I write here ‘mirror’, but as I wrote many tomes already, this may be not necessarily the true function of this artefact, and this mirror-like object could have a very different meaning back then, clear to all the spectators at the time of van Scorel but completely eluding from us now.

I have written about these non-mirrors already, and more than once, and I assume will be writing more in the future; but this works adds a very different dimension to many previous non-mirrors. The majority of those had been connected, in some way or another to Saint Mary, or Madonna; either her Annunciation, or Birth, or Death etc. Here we have an entirely different context, of public space, a classroom of some sort.


Later in the 17th century, in the Iconology of Cesare Ripe, we will see the examples of affiliation of mirrors with the concept of Knowledge and specifically with Teaching, but I’ve never seen these connections so early. One exception could be the mirror in the study of St.Luke, depicted by Gabriel Mälesskircher.  But all in all, it’s still an exceptionally rare case of ‘mirror placement’.

As I said, I have a slightly large copy of this panel, but it’s still too small to figure out what is reflected in the convex surface: 

Perhaps there is a “real” self-portrait of the master there? Which would make it similar to the enigmatic ‘mirror’ of Van Eyck?

Once again, I sense yen another hunt for a better quality image, to answer these questions. Does anyone happen to live in Jerusalem, by any chance?

I am also very much interested in the emblem placed above the St. Augustine’s head; my assumption that they depict the Sun and the Moon, but I would need to double-check it first. If it is the case, it would fuel yet another investigation I am currently undertaking, connecting glass mirrors, ancient, archaic even symbolism of Sun/Moon, and modern Christianity.




2 thoughts on “Sacra oculi, or Curriculum with a mirror

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