There are two types of mirrors: Those you look at, and the real ones

When I wrote about ‘mirrors’ in the Annunciation scene (see 1001 Virgins, or The (alleged) Mirror of Annunciation), I spotted one artwork (Birth of the Virgin, by Jan de Beer) as an example of depicting of two mirrors in one painting. Back then I ventured to interpret the first one as the ‘real mirror’, perhaps indeed used to look at yourself, and the other one as more spiritual, used for more sacral purposes (for instance, for praying or as a tool of protection/guardianship).


Just as a reminder, here is this panel:

And here are its two different mirrors (and the one on the right is not):

I wondered if I could ever find another example of such a doublet. Eventually, I did.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1470-1533) is not exactly the most known painter, at least outside of the Netherlands. Here in the country, and specifically in Amsterdam, he is known much better, even if only for the fact of being “the very first officially registered artist of the city”.

Often also described as Jacob Cornelisz van Amsterdam, van Oostsanen is one of those painters whose bios start from the most intriguing sentence:  “Little is known about X Y van Z’s life.”

Having such a start, the rest of could be whatever; basically, any sort of the twisted biographical entanglements would go. And the twisted life of van Oostsanen apparently bemused the historian already in the 17the century. The sentence on the picture above is in Old Dutch, and I can’t really translate it into an equivalent in Old English, but it roughly says:

“Born he was in the Village, known as Oostsanen, in the Waterlandt; and how he hit with Art, coming from the County, I can never know”.

Waterlandt is the common name for the swampy lands northward of Amsterdam, and the village called Oostsanen has eventually become the part of Zandaam, the very town that Peter the Great lived in when visiting the Netherlands in the end of 17th century.

Those of you who’ve been to the Netherlands and visited one of its most famous touristic attractions, the Zaanse Schans windmill park, can imagine how the place of birth of the future painter may look like:

Or may be they can’t, because in the 15th century this place looked very differently. Amsterdam was yet to become the capital and the the large European city, and still was a small, provincial town, inferior not only to the mighty cities of Flanders (Bruges, Ghent, or Antwerp) but also to many Dutch cities, already well developed by then, such Leiden, Haarlem or Rotterdam.

It is believed that young  Jacob Cornelisz learned the art of painting in Harlem. The glory of the Golden Age of the Dutch painting is also two centuries ahead in the future, and now the local workshops are also far from being the best in class.

Here is one of the earliest altarpieces of van Oostsanen, created around 1507; he is already 40 years old, and the work is supposed to show a very mature master, but it’s of much lesser quality compared to the contemporary pieces made in Antwerp or even in Utrecht.


The time of creation of this triptych also tells that it was made already in Amsterdam, where van Oostsanen moved in 1500 – and it is from this time Amsterdam got its first ‘registered artist’ (just compare it with the already many centuries long art history in Flanders!)

One of the reasons of this rather poor quality of his first works could be the fact that he may start his art career as an engraver, not a painter. I wrote, in my story about Five Senses, that Hendrik Goltzius, another famous Dutch painter, also first started as an engraver, and only later moved to painting. He himself admitted that his first works were rather mediocre (they got better with time).

Such may be also the case with van Oostsanen. I have looked at some of his engravings (in the online database of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) and indeed, it looks like his first paintings were merely the colourful copies of his etchings (unfortunately, I didn’t find any mirrors in those, yet).

It is also believed that he could travel to Antwerp for a study tour, where he could meet with Albrecht Dürer. The later is a bit doubtful, since Dürer made his “Dutch Journey” in 1520-21, when van Oostsanen was already 50 years old. Not that it’s impossible, these days you can drive from Amsterdam to Antwerp in less than two hours (minus traffic jams), it’s just we see a certain impact of the Southern schools is visible in his works much earlier than that.

Here, for instance, his large and very complex Crucifixion (c. 1510) – and I also put the link to the larger version of this work, so you can explore it yourself:

It’s a bit funny in the context that van Oostsanen is sometimes described as “the last Dutch master who remained intact to Mannerism”. Lolololllo!, as modern youth tells in these cases.  Just look at this Salome, and try to see the lack of Mannerism:

It’s all very interesting, I may tell more about van Oostsanen’s works one day soon (I actually has shown one of his Annunciations already, in my previous posting), but my focus today is different.  What I really wanted to do is to show just one work of van Oostsanen, his Birth of St.Mary:

Here is the painting:

I thought the composition of Jan de Beer is too complex.  Compared to this heap of bodies compiled by van Ostsanena the Birth by de Beer is an epitome of minimalism. This panel shows the nineteen women, two babies, and four angels – and that not counting their reflections in the mirrors! And the mirrors here are indeed not one, but two:

Similar to the de Beer’s panel, we can consider the mirror that hangs on the window frame as ‘the real one’, meaning that it was, perhaps, used for the same purposes we would do it now, to look at yourself (although I would be careful with these assumptions now, after all my studies).

But the second object is clearly not the mirror in our sense, and is yet another example of the ‘thingies’ I am blabbing here for the last two years or so:

I could leave this to the readers to create their own interpretations of the meaning of these two ‘mirrors’ and their juxtaposition to each in the painting  (e.g.,F rontal and Sided, Earthly and Heavenly, Sacral and Profane etc):


I may come back to this work later, and explore it further, but for now I’d leave it as is, simply as a record of yet another case of double-mirrors in one painting. May be just a few factoids, to complete the story: the panel is now in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Buenos Aires (and I found it via Google Art Institute, where you can also find a large reproduction of the work). It’s a relatively large panel, almost 80 x 130 cm (and most likely was a part of a large triptych).

Just for the record, this is his self-portrait; if to believe the date of its creation (1533), it was not made not long before its death.


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