ExtravagAnt! & its mirrors

I often start my postings after I visit a museum or an exhibition (as in I’ve recently been to this museum and that’s the mirror I’ saw there). Another frequent trajectory comes from an artist’s name – “We all know such and such artist, and look how many mirrors she painted“.  I relatively rarely start from the book –  the only exception being one album I wrote about some years ago, Mooi, mooier, mooiste

This is really strange, since I do read a lot of interesting books when searching the materials for my postings here. But I tend to use them merely as sources, and hardly even mention them (being afraid that this blog will start looking like an academic publication).

In an effort to balance this trend I would like to tell about one book, or rather an exhibition catalogue called ExtravagAnt! (The picture above is its cover). The short title of the book is so generic, so it is unlikely you will find it on the web. The full name (ExtravagAnt! A forgotten chapter of Antwerp painting, 1500-1530) may bring more luck, but it’s still not easy to find it for sale today.

The reason is that it was, indeed, a catalogue of the duo exhibition, held some time ago (2005/6), first in the Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp, and then in the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. I assume the edition was very limited, and with time the book may become a bibliographic rarity (and yet I bought it on sale, for 10 euro or so, in the museum shop of the MAS, in the end of the last year).

I sense that the exhibition itself must have been pretty unique, because a) it was very focussed (on a very niche art school of Antwerp Mannerism, and b) it was very rich, presenting the masterpieces gathered from dozens of museums and private collections. A once in a lifetime kind of event, which I am not sure is repeatable in the near future, well, in my life-time at least.  The catalogue (200+ pages) is relatively well printed and incredible informative (thus very boring, for not so very motivated reader); it’s comparable to a serious academic edition with its detailed and accurate descriptions of the artworks). I have already used the book a number of time, as a source of information about otherwise little-known masters (like Master 1518 or Jan de Beer), and some of the ‘mirror works’ also went to my more lightweight image stream about mirrors in art (Art Mirrors Art).

At some point I decided that it would be interesting to describe in one posting all the ‘mirrors’ I found in this book. I know that some may find this just purely descriptive, thus very shallow, but I somehow see the point of doing it, since such an overview could be a good platform for the next studies.  My plain vanilla plan is, therefore, to simply present a range of works from this book that show either mirrors – or ‘mirrors’ (to be honest, and as a bit of a spoiler, *almost* all of them are of the latter category).

1. Jan de Beer – Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child (c.1510)

I already wrote this theme, of St.Luke painting the Virgin (Meta-Hodegetria, or the Saint Mirrors), and I know that mirrors appear in these scenes fairly regularly. By now I am more or less sure that these were ‘mirrors’, but I would have to write too long a posting to defend this argument, so I would leave it as is for now.


There is another drawing in the book on the same subject, which is also attributed to Jan de Beer. (I have to add here that all these attributions are, in fact, questionable, not only in case of this painter, but also to all the masters clustered under the umbrella of ‘Northern Mannerism’. As a rule, we know too little about them to be fully certain with almost everything – the authorship, the timing, and often the meaning of the work, too. Thus. ‘is believed’ is a good expression to add to almost every statement).

2. (workshop of ?) Jan de Beer – Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child (c.1510)

Certain characteristics of the pen strike lead the experts (oh, those experts!) to the suggestion that it’s not de Beer himself who made this drawing, but one of his apprentices. Also, it is most likely a copy of a larger work of the master, currently on display in Milano in the Pinacoteca di Brera. It’s a shame, but the gallery does not show any decent image of this interesting work online, and the Getty Images only show it with this horrible mark 😦    (PS: I later found a ‘clean’ version).


3. Jan de Beer –  Birth of the Virgin (1515)

Another drawing by (or rather attributed to) the same master – and we see, of course, that it is strikingly similar to another work of his that is currently in the Thyssen-Boernemisza gallery in Madrid (and one I wrote about mane, many times here – most recently when describing the similar mirror duplet by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen):


The drawing also has two mirrors, although the second one (well, ‘second’ meaning that I count the ‘so-called mirror’ as the first) is hanging on the the wall this, not on the window as in the painting. The frame of this ‘second mirror’ also has a different shape on the drawing (more traditional round one) compared to the painting (where it’s unusually octagonal).


4.  Pseudo-Bles – Bathsheba receiving a message from King David (c.1515)

Now, this is very strange drawing. It is beautiful and rich with details, just look at its architectural refinements; but it is also very weird, at least mirror-wise.

It depicts the scene with King David and Bathsheba, just before the moment she will get the fatal letter.  I wrote about this story (Bathsheba and her Mirror Gadget), and then one more time, when I discovered more ‘Bathsheba mirrors’ in manuscripts. And it is these earlier studies, which have me puzzled about this mirror: it’s too archaic for the hyper-social context we are seeing it in.

Previously, we saw such old convex mirrors only in old manuscripts – and rightly so, since this technology should be seen by the masters as already outdated in the beginning of 16th century. But in the earlier iconography of Bathsheba (i.e., in the manuscripts) she is alone or with one or two servants – and when she gets her populous support groups, we see her with very different mirrors, large and flat. Here, I spot a bizarre mismatch.

The attributed author of this drawing is bit bizarre, too. The name ‘Pseudo-Bles‘ comes from the times when of works that had been signed as Herri met de Bles, another Flemish painter – only to discover that the signatures had been added later, and disguise a very different author (or maybe a group of authors, so we often will see the attribution as “Pseudo-Bles Group’).


5. Master of 1518 – Altarpiece with the Adoration of the Shepherds, Visitation, and Annunciation (c.1520)

There are no mirrors depicted in this altarpiece.  I show it here only to indicate the theme, Annunciation, where I usually do find mirrors (or rather ‘mirrors’). But I didn’t find any examples of such in this book. A bit of a pity, and a bit strange for this very master has an interesting drawing depicting the Annunciation AND a mirror-like object – I showed this engraving by the master already a few times:


But not this time; though the altarpiece itself is just marvelous. The scene of Annunciation is shown on its outer panels, but inside we discover the whole world, made as a 3D shrine:


The next three works all show very similar ‘mirrors’ (albeit in different contexts). This is a relatively new theme for me,previously I wrote only once about one example of a similar emblematic mirror I found so far (in the Scenes from Life of Saint Ursula, by Jan van Coninxloo), and remember being very puzzled back then.

Anyway, this is what I found in the catalogue

6. Master of the Von Groote Adoration – Triptych with the Adoration of The Magi (c.1525)

This is a rather unusual compilation: the central panel depicts the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, and very impressively (the name of the master in fact means ‘Great, or Large Adoration’ in Dutch).  But two side panels depict the scenes from the Old Testament whose association with the central theme is not immediately clear.

The left wing show the scene usually described as King David Receives the Messengers. There are few different stories about King David and the messengers; this one refers to the incidents when three of his soldiers brought him water from the fountain in Bethlehem. He was hiding in a cave then, and here we see a rather luxurious version of such cave… but ok.

The right wing portrays a very famous scene, the Queen of Sheba paying visit to King Solomon who receives her in his palace. The exact meaning of this visit, and thus the allusions implied by this scene in this context are not very clear. The scenes are both called ‘prefigurations’ to the scene with the Child, on the basis that they are “both throne scenes (?)”, “both imply courtly elements (??)”. So what? This is what I call a schizophrenic type of explanation, one that is build on a set of latent characteristics.  But it’s not my task, at least not now, to find the ‘right’ solutions of the riddle (it’s not me who’s King Solomon here).

But speaking about Solomon, the panel with him shows an interesting object on the baldachin of his throne:

Below is my best efforts in ‘zooming-in’ this image with my scanner:

I can spot that the object is very similar to the ‘mirrors’ we saw before – and to the one we’ve seen in the panel by van Coninxloo, but the exact meaning, function, and even the name of them is yet to be discovered (by me, that is, I can easily believe that for someone else it’s all well-known banality).

The second work is very similar (mirror-wise – content-wise it can’t be further away):

7. Master of the Solomon Triptych – Triptych of the Idolatry of King Solomon (c.1530)

It’s really difficult for me to understand the content in which they would put in the center of the altarpiece the scene of the idolatry – with the very Idol presented so proudly and brightly! But again, it’s not my task to venture into complex re-interpretations of this riddle too (this was the job of King Solomon).

The left panel itself is less problematic – it’s again the same scene with Queen of Sheba visiting the King Solomon:

And again, we see the same (or similar) ‘mirror’ above the king’s throne, on its baldachine:


9. The final work is very interesting itself – but also adds a surprising twist to the two previous altarpieces, and especially to their ‘mirrors’:

Anonymous – The Last Supper, with a donor (с.1525)

There are suggestions that this work could have been produced by Pieter Coecke van Aelst or his workshop – but these suggestions are made because the latter had a somewhat similar panel:

But following this logic, you could also attribute the anonymous work to the very Leonardo who made this composition very popular after his Last Supper made in1495. The work of Leonardo was known in Flanders as early as 1515, and impacted many artists.

In any case, neither Leonardo, nor van Aelst portrayed Christ sitting on a throne – but this unknown master did, and he also decorated this throne with a magnificent medallion:

This thing doesn’t look like a mirror at a first look – but in fact could well be, and could reflect the scene beneath, with Christ (we’ve seen one such mirror in the panel by Juan van Flandes – see also Mirrus Christ!)


But it could, of course, be also ‘just medallion’, something like a coat of arms of the throne holder, a badge of honor or an emblem of a sort.  Now, what would you paint on the ‘coat of arms’ of Christ? As I complain (too often, I am afraid), the quality of the copies in all these ‘art-books’ rarely allow to see what is depicted, and this is the case with this image too. Looks like I need to get up and go to Brussels where the paining is on display in the Royal Museum of Arts.

I was planning, for a completely different reason, to write about these baldachins with their beautiful ‘clothes of honor’ that are often shown in old paintings. I did some preliminary research into all these patterns and their meanings, and I can guess, for instance, that this large red flower behind Christ is most likely a pomegranate (or the flower of), the symbol of both suffering and resurrection in Christianity. But much more is still left to learn, as always.

PS: Speaking about reading, the text was read by R. who kindly provided her feedback that made this posting more readable and clear.



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