Van Orley and his patient mirror

I decided to this icon for the postings about the “mirror-thingy”, that is, about those objects that we now believe are mirrors, but that I suspect are something else. The most recent overview of such ‘thingies’ is here.

And as the icon suggests, this posting will be – again! – about those mirrors/non-mirrors.  I found the next such one, again quite different from the rest (and even different from the most recent ‘educational mirror-thing I discovered in Jan van Scorel’s polyptych. But this posting is structured as a detective story, whereby I will be showing the ‘mirror’ in question last, and before that will tell about many other things, not necessarily related to mirrors.

Such is, for example, the large painting above; there are no mirrors (neither ‘mirrors’) in it, which of course doesn’t make it less interesting per se.  The reproduction above is hyperlinked to the page of the Google Art Institute where you can also look at and explore this work in many more details.

We are all eagerly waiting for the day when all the museums will digitise their works and upload them to this website, for us to really start seeing their works properly. And some museums need to do quicker than others – the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is definitely one of them. It used to have a horrible website, completely unable to display its rich collection; it got slightly better, but just slightly, as far as I could see. Even the best of its works have been shown as miniature copies; worser even, but when the museum opened its ‘digital branch‘ at the Google Art Institute, it still does not link the images shown there back to the original museum website. What shame.

For me this situation is particular painful, since this museum hosts five of the most famous ‘mirrors in art’, a very rare concentration; I mentioned it once already (and since then only discovered that the museum in fact has even more ‘mirrors’ in its collection).

Enough whining, and back to business. As I said, this triptych above has no mirrors,  but it’s not just simply a beautiful work, but also one of the earliest known by the Flemish painter Bernard van Orley (sometimes written as Bernaert van Orley or even as a Barend/ t van Orley). Why not to start from this work, then?

I wrote “triptych”, but what you see here is only its central panel, though oddly divided visually into two symmetrical parts by its central pillar, thus looking like a diptych. It was in fact a true triptych, only its wings are now Brussels (and my story you can can guess why it so happened).

The altar was commissioned by the guild of masons and carpenters, for their church Notre Dame du Sablon in Brussels (itself amazingly beautiful, like a giant wedding cake). The altar thus appropriately depicts the acts of the apostles Matthias and Thomas, the guild’s patrons. I will show here a few fragments of this altar, but I highly recommend to go and explore it yourself – at least at Google Art Institute website.

The left side of the alter depicts the death of St.Thomas, according to the legend at the hands of Keralian (!) Priest (by the way, the whole Indian part of his life was for a totally new discovery):

As it later turned out, the rumors of about his martyrdom have been greatly exaggerated (or rather the story was incorrectly translated from the local sources; one more reason to learn the Malayalam language, with its most beautiful alphabet).  Anybody who is at least remotely familiar with the history of Kerala would question the story; the people of Kerala consider themselves the most peace-loving people in the world, and didn’t have any wars for the last 300 years or something.

Never mind, we therefore have a fantastic image of a beautiful bonnet of the ‘Keralian priest’ (as it was imagined in Flanders in the early 16th century, of course):

We see many more examples of beautiful headgear (one strongly resembles the Russian ushanka):

Sure, if I will be describing all these ‘hats’, I may never get to the mirrors I am about. And yet, if to ignore all these beautiful details in these old paintings, why even start looking? It seems to me that all these details had a well-defined meaning for all people who were looking at the alter back then, the meaning, I am afraid, largely lost now (under the ‘meaning’ I don’t mean the Panofskian “symbolism” but rather a more anthropological value of all these details that was very clear for all the people in question.)

What is the meaning of all these wonderful sun-faces on the pillars of the Thomas’ side of the altar?


And why we don’t see them on the Matthias’s side, but instead there is wonderful “sunshine” pouring from the ceiling?

and why it finally drops on the head of the last selected apostle who replaced Judas?

There are many more questions, of course, but now there is now also a chance to see the answer – just go and look.

Meanwhile, Bernart van Brussels, as it he is sometimes called, painted many more such large and beautiful altars during his life:

The above one is in Bruges, in the Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk), and the Last Judgment (Last Judgement and the Seven Works of Mercy) below is in Antwerp, in the Cathedral of Our Lady (both are not mine pictures, and I do not know how people manage to take them; every time we go to these churches, it’s always very dark (scarily dark) there:

A few words about the master. According to some sources, his grandfather was a native of Luxembourg and came from a noble family, but later moved to Bruges where he served at the court of Philip the Good. Valentin van Orley was his illegitimate son, and therefore lost the rights of nobility (although he could keep the prefix “van”). However, he seemingly enjoyed the patronage of the court, and eventually became a court painter at court of the Dukes of Brabant (it’s not very clear for, however, whether it was still the court of Charles the Bold, or Mary of Burgundy, or already of Philip the Fair; the developments back then were as volatile as in the Games of Thrones, and I am not the only one who is confused).

None of his works survived, but he started a large and long-lasting dynasty of artists and painters, starting with four of his sons (including Bernart) all of whom became painters, and lasting up to the great-grandchildren who worked as engravers as laster as the middle of the 18th century.

Bernart was born in Brussels in 1488 and began to work in his father’s workshop from early years. Most of his early works (not only paintings or altars, but also tapestries) follow the traditions of the Flemish school:

Pieta (The Haneton Triptych) (c.1515)

But then, in the early 1500s, he went to Italy, to Rome, where he became acquainted with the works of many Italian artists of the time, including Raphael. Whether Bernart van Orley really worked in the workshop of the very Raphael remains unclear, but it is known that after his return to Brussels he would soon be known as the “Northern Raphael”, and will become one of the founding fathers of the Northern Mannerism.

Jan van Scorel, whom I wrote very recently about, and Jan Matsys, whom I wrote about already a while ago, and a whole bunch of other artists (including, for example, Jan Mabuse/Gossaert, whom I have to still write about) can be all considered as the part of these large movement, that imported the latest artistic developments from Italy to Flanders. (The latter statement is, however, a subject of a rather heated ideological disputes, as there are the supporters of the ‘spontaneous’, endogenous Northern Mannerism that has emerged itself in the Northern lands; as a confirmation of their ideas they mentioned such figures as Jan Rombouts and Jan de Beer who apparently never travelled to Italy and yet produced distinctively Manneristic works) .

As a result of the Italian study trips, we see very different work of Bernart van Orley:

Madonna and Child (c.1520)

Mary with Child and John the Baptist (c.1516)

The issue is not only landscapes and more elaborate architecture that appear in these works (and that are usually absent in more traditional old Flemish paintings); people are also depicted with many more details and in a more humane way.

Madonna and Child (c.1510)

Bernard van Orley will become known for these subtle and refined portraits (or well-mannered, as we could call them), he will be getting a lot commissions not only for religious, but also for secular works. For example, he will paint one of the most famous portraits of Charles V:

In 1518 Bernart van Orley becomes the court painter of Margaret of Austria, and in the following years will create a large number of large and beautiful altarpieces (but also a lot of drawings to weave the tapestries, another very popular genre at that time).

The life ofMargaret of Austria is quite amazing and many things could have gone in a very different direction in Europe, provided her life would be a bit different. She was the daughter of Maximilian I, the Emperor of the Holy Empire, and Mary of Burgundy, the ruler of Burgundy (which then included not only the current province in the South of France, but all rich Flanders). It happened to be that ownership of the same lands was also claimed Louis XI, and already tense situation became very tough after a sudden and quite absurd death of Mary in 1482; she fell off a horse during a falcon hunt and broke his back; Margaret was then only two years old.

The rules of inheritance were fairly complex, and legally speaking Maximilian was not getting the rights to the rich lands of Burgundy after the death of his wife; but her children were. But so was the king of France, Louis XI, and he even tried to grab the land by force, but the army of Maximilian gained some important victory and the question went into a diplomatic limbo of some sort.

One of the possible solutions would be a marriage between Margaret and Charles, the son of Louis XI (he later become Charles VIII). If everything would go according to the plan – and the plan was actually agreed, and signed by both kings – Margaret would eventually become the Queen of France, and we would see the emergence of the largest alliance in Europe, impossible to defeat by any of the opponents.

Margaret had been prepared for this agreed marriage since early childhood. From the age of three years she grew up at the French court as the Princess of France. If to believe the information we have, she was very attached to young Carl (though I think it was a very innocent affection, Charles was 10 years older than her).

But then, as it often happens, the Big Politics has intervened, and in 1491the marriage agreement was terminated; Charles married Anne of Brittany. Eleven years old Margaret has ceased to be “the future Queen of France,” and spent next three years as a hostage at the court of her not-to-be husband (the story of Sansa Stark can to mind to the modern reader – yet it could well be written based on the real life of Margaret).

Few years later she would finally came back to the court of Maximilian, who finds her new husband, the only son of the Queen of Castile and the King of Aragon (oh, those names!)  Juan, whose full title was Joan de Aragon of the House of Trastámara, Prince of Asturias and Girona, Duke of Montblanc, Count of Cervera, and Lord of Balaguer. Margaret went to Spain in 1496, and in 1497 they married. Six months later Juan died, Margaret (she was 17 by then) was six months pregnant, but their child died during the childbirth. Again, due to some complex laws of inheritance, she retained the title, but not the rights to the land.

The second attempt to marry happened in 1501, soon after after she returned to the court of his father. Maximilian found her new husband, Philibert, Duke of Savoy – who also had the right to call himself the ruler of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Cilician Armenia (though in fact all these rules were fairly nominal). And yet Savoy was still an important area, especially in the context of growing tensions with the Papal Rome, so that marriage (= i.e., political union) would be very beneficial to Maximilian. Unfortunately, Philibert died three years later, at a very young age (he was the same age as Margaret).

As a result of all these fruitless (sic!) efforts Margaret made ​​a vow to never marry again (she was even nicknamed as the Dame de deuil, the Lady of Mourning.

Here is her portrait by Bernart van Orley (the first one I’ve shown was not his, but of some unknown master); we see the sign of her vow, a black thread on the finger:

Margaret was one of the most erudite and multicultural, as we would call it now, rulers of her time (and her twisted and tragic biography did help, of course). After some time Maximilian appointed her the Statthalter of the Low Countries (stadhouder in Dutch), a new role for the time, something like the governor of the colonies.  Margaret was the second person who got this position, and the first woman.

She was a very wise supervisor of her lands, and during her rules not only the economy prospered, including many arts and crafts, but also the growing religious tensions with the Protestants had been resolved more or less successfully (i.e., they didn’t burn as many Protestants as they would do otherwise).

Margaret’s court was located in Mechelen (a town half way from Antwerp to Brussels), and the twenty years of her reign there were the last moment of glory for the city that once was a capital of Flanders.  After her death in 1530 the status of the capital will go to Brussels, and soon the glory of Mechelen will all become history.

But all these things are the ‘future’ yet, while in the ‘present’ the province is flourishing, and van Orley is getting more and more orders for his works; his workshop in Mechelen has become one of the largest in Europe.

The triptych called Virtue of Patience was one of these special commissions. It was created in 1521, as an illustration – and endorsement – of the named virtue, that was especially useful in the context of Margaret’s life.

Another name of this triptych is the Triptych of Job (as in the Book of Job) (who, as we know, did need a lot of patience to cope with the issues he was confronting in this life ). The front panel of the triptych is bright picture of all those multiple misfortunes that descended upon the house of Job:



We also see flying under the dome the You_Know_Who_&_He_Who_Must_Not_Be Named, the force behind all these misfortunes:

Unfortunately, this work is not yet in the possession of the Google Art Institute, so I can not say anything about the beauty of its headgear (or of anything else, for that matter).

Because of the high importance of the commission, van Orley painted this triptych himself, not delegating it to the apprentices. Apparently, he was very proud of his work, and not only signed it twice, but also added his coat of arms and his family motto, ELX SYNE TYT (each in his time).

This is certainly a very powerful art project, but we don’t find any mirrors here – at least not on the front panels. However, we find something interesting in one of the back panels (and it should be noticed here that the back panels of this triptych are unusually decorative). In the majority of cases the back panels of the altarpieces were less elaborate and ‘dressed down’. Even the most famous Ghent Polyptych by van Eyck & Co has most of his rear panels made in a monochrome grisaille technique.

But for this altar van Orley made his back panels almost as complex and elaborate as his front ones:


The panels tell the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This story has slightly different overtones of tolerance than those explored in the Book of Job, but there are some common motifs too (i.e., of faith and fair – or unfair – retribution, justification of suffering and such like). The iconography of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is quite large, and very old, and I can’t insert it all here, but I feel that I need to show at least a few examples.

Here, for instance, is a three-part illumination from the Nuremberg Psalter of the 11th century (so called Codex Aureus of Echternach):

In the first part we see the feast in the house of Rich Man and the beggar Lazarus; in the second Lazarus dies and deservedly transferred – well, not in Heaven, but in some place euphemistically called the Bosom of Abraham; it’s a kind of buffer where the souls of the righteous are gathered until the final Day of Judgment. The last panel shows the Rich Man transported, expectedly, You_Know_Where. But what’s interesting for me in this illustration is that he is first shown lying on some bed.

Similar, only a fourfold scheme of events, is depicted on the Russian lubok of the 17th century; just before his last journey to the Hell the Rich Man is, too, shown lying on his bed:

We see the bed – and apparently the Rich Man in it – on one of the panels by van Orley too:


Until very recently I was only able to guess what is hanging above the head of the man (I assumed it’s one of my ‘mirrors’, but wasn’t sure, and for ages couldn’t get to Brussels to check the triptych itself  (their own website provides only a tiny reproduction).

But then I fortunately came across a relatively recent posting in Livejournal, which shows exactly this panel, and of relatively large size:

In short: here we again see the same “thing”, a mirror-like object that is clearly not a mirror in our current understanding of the mirror-ness. I am finding these ‘non-mirrors’ again and again, but this time the context is quite different from other works.

We have already seen such ‘things’ in a bed (or under a canopy), but those were the beds of women. I’ve seen this thing in the male context only once, in the Mystère de la Vengeance, and interestingly, it was also shown in the vicinity of a sick, or suffering man.  The suffering was also present when we saw this object on the paintings of the birth – whether it was the birth of St. John, or Saint Mary.

What was the purpose of placing this “mirror” here? To show the status and wealth of the man? Or to show this as a necessary tool in such situations (e.g., for praying, or perhaps as a channel of communication with another worlds (I alluded to such use in one of the recent semi-serious postings)?

There are more questions than answers so far, but at least it’s one more steps to the solution of this enigma.


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