Mirrors of the Virginal Thrones


In my previous posting about Northern Mannerism  I’ve shown two examples of the ‘throne’s mirrors’ (both of them happened to be the thrones of the King Solomon who is receiving the Queen of Sheba). These two mirrors (or three, if to also add the throne mirror depicted by Jan van Coninxloo) clearly demonstrated a very different pattern of ‘mirror usage’, so to speak. These are much more ‘masculine’ and power-driven mirrors, compared to more ‘feminine’ and introvert mirrors that I regularly find in the bedrooms of the Saint Mary or her mother, Saint Anna (or some other female saints).

At some point I obviously started to mull over a possible intersection of these two themes. Can we imagine a mirror on the throne of Madonna?  She is often depicted with a mirror (or a ‘mirror’), as we saw in the scenes of the Annunciation (and some others too. But she is also often depicted on the throne. In fact, Madonna Enthroned is one of the most popular motifs of Christian iconography, especially in the early Renaissance art of Italy (but it was also very frequent in the work of the Northern masters, too).

One of the works by Gerard David (so called The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510), also known as The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine) was a good indication that this combination, of a throne and a mirror in the presence of Madonna is not an impossible one to find:

In this particular work, it’s not a mirror but an interesting medallion that hangs above the Mary’s head (by the way, I wrote about this, and few other similar mirror-like medallions earlier, see Mirror Tic-Tac-Toe). But this was already ‘warm enough’ for me to start searching around. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any other examples of such throne mirrors, despite all my efforts (fairly sporadic, I should admit).

That is, until I found this triptych of The Adoration of the Magi (c.1520), by the Flemish maser Pieter Coecke van Aelst from Antwerp:

I have to add that I bumped into this work absolutely by accident (although it can also be descried as ‘inevitable’, depending on how you treat a ‘half-a-glass’ situation).

Some time ago we decided to visit the Museum of Religious Art in Uden, a small town 30km east of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The museum, called MRK in Dutch, or Museum voor Religieuze Kunst, is located in the very old monastery of Bridgetties, the order established by controversial St. Bridget of Sweden in the 14th century. The history of this order is complicated, and so is the one of this specific monastery. It used to be located in another town, not far from Uden, but was expelled from there and found a new home in this location (the Abbey is thus also called Maria Refuge). The current building dates back to the beginning of 18th century.

The museum has quite a large collection of religious objects, ranging from the large altarpieces and devotional sculptures to monstrances and manuscripts. Today we often call all these objects ‘art’, but it always worth to keep in mind that they were not, and not seen as art even a century ago. They were perceived and treated by people as important part of their daily life.

Interestingly, but the museum also has a sizeable collection of modern religions art. The latter I can more readily see as art, in our contemporary meaning of the word. Unfortunately, the museum’s website is only in Dutch, but if you manage to go through a relatively simple navigation you can see many items of their collection of modern religious art online, and here is the good page to start.

There was a lot of interesting things in this museum to see, religious objects, including few interesting monstrances, the things we now call ‘paintings’ (that most often were altarpieces, that is, the furthest things from art possible), and also a collection of icons. There happened to be an exhibition of Russian icons when we were there, and another exhibition that I would describe as homage to the famous Isenheim Altarpiece.  I once wrote a posting (or rather a series of postings) where I put some of photos I took in this museum, and in case of your interested you can have a look here – Museum of Religious Art in Uden. It is a sort of nest posting, with the links to few other postings, each on a specific topic.

But back to the mirror, or rather a ‘mirror’. The picture of the triptych above is a bit distorted because the triptych itself hangs in a very narrow corridor and I struggled with how to take any picture of this work, not even thinking how to take a ‘good‘ one.

The best proportion was achieved by iPad with its wide-angle camera:

But the quality is very poor, because it’s quite dark there.

I will show below the parts of this triptych, sometimes with close-ups, when available.

The central panel:

A more detailed view:

When back home, I noticed an interesting detail on this panel, a large and mirror-like clasp on the cloak of the First King:

But I didn’t take any special picture of it in the museum, and now it’s hard for me to say whether it has any reflection in it or not.

The left wing:

The right wing:

The picture above also show the ‘mirror’ of the central panel, and below is the picture showing it even closer:

The mirror-like object hanging on a baldachin above the head of Saint Mary is seemingly very similar to the ones we’ve seen on the thrones of King Solomon. I can at least show the ‘mirror’ from the triptych of the Great Adoration I just wrote about:

Compared to the King Solomon’s mirror medallion, the one of Mary has a very lovely tassel. But we also see a very arbitrary way of mounting of this object on the baldachin. It looks like it was pinned down to the canvas, without much consideration to realistically depict the way it should be fastened to the fabric.

This close-up also reveals a reflection shown in this mirror: we see a window of a kind, or more specifically the cross of its frame. Never mind that the scene is not in a room but in open space: my guess that depicting a window frame was a typical way to show any reflective surface, whether it was a mirror or an object such a bottle, shields or the likes.  The window frame, or rather muntin, also looked like a cross and apparently was a common way to allude to the Cross of Crucifixion.

My simplistic ‘visual analytics’ also doesn’t reveal any content in the surface of this medallion:

The theme of the Adoration of the Magi was very popular in Flanders, and was often chosen for home altars. The very idea of rich and powerful kings paying homage to the Child Christ and Saint Mary and presenting their gifts to them was somehow very appealing to the wealthy commissioners.

This is not the only Adoration by van Aelst. On the contrary, he created a large amount of similar paintings, portraying this scene in a variety of ways. I will show below just a few of the most interesting examples, but not all the works, otherwise this posting will get too long.

Here Adoration is combined with Annunciation and Flight to Egypt:


Here, with Nativity and Circumcision:


Annunciation and Nativity:

The same, Annunciation and Nativity:

I haven’t found any other Adoration by van Aelstwith the mirror (although I found a few other interesting works with mirrors by him, but I will describe them in a separate posting).  There is, however, one work that I need to mention here.

Strictly speaking, the following work does not quite belong to this posting, and is more related to the tail of the previous one, where I wrote about throne mirrors. This is not even the work of Pieter Coecke van Aelst himself, but made after his design (he was making a lot of designs for tapestries and – as in this case – for glass panels):

The scene depicts Herod and soon to be beheaded John the Baptist, Herodias (or perhaps Salome herself, ready for her fatal dance), and the mirror – or rather the ‘mirror’, one of those throne emblems made with the use of convex mirrors. Similar to the previous throne mirror by van Aelst, this one also reflects a window muntin:


Now I would like to show one more work that I have found later, and after a more dedicated search. It is also a triptych, and its central theme is also the Adoration of the Magi (two other wings are Nativity and Flight to Egypt):

It is made by Jan van Dornicke, who also worked in Antwerp, although a generation earlier than Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The former could well be the teacher of the latter. It is also believed by many experts that Jan, or Janssone van Dornicke could be the same master whom we know as the Master of 1518.

If we look closer at this throne of Saint Mary, we will again see the same ‘mirror’ that we have seen in the triptych by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, only decorated even more richly.

The refelction is again very vague; I can bet that there is also a window with the frame’s cross, but can’t be completely certain with the copy I have:

My own simple analysis doesn’t reveal much more that we see already, although it did confirm my suspicions that I see a man in a halo of this patch of reflected light:

But all conspiracy theories aside, I now have two clear examples of mirrors used in the thrones of Saint Mary, which are similar to their use in the thrones of many other rules, whether they were good or bad.

PS: The text was kindly edited by R. who tirelessly helps me to improve both grammar and style of my texts. Thank you!


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