Serendipitous reunions with the mirrors-in-art


A quasi-mythical being called Attentive Reader of This Blog could have noticed that this triptych was once already shown here. Indeed, it was in fact the very previous posting where I wrote about this and few more works from the book on Antwerp Mannerism (and so this Attentive Reader doesn’t have to have an enormous attention span to spot it).

The first difference is that the altar’s panels are swapped. In the book we see the throne ‘mirror’ on the right panel, and here it’s on the left one ( I will come to this point later). Perhaps more importantly, this is not yet another scan from the book, but a real picture I took in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt where we went this weekend.

Which makes it all looking a bit like a miracle.

When writing about the artworks with mirror in this blog, I rarely indicate the place where the work is currently located (e.g., a museum, or a private collection, or a church etc). Sometimes I don’t know the place, but often I do, and maybe I should be more pedantic and describe more accurately the information about the painting, such as its current location.

For example, the book of the previous post presented the works from a certain exhibition held in two museums and while many of the work were from these very museums, some were borrowed from other museums or collections. I noticed a few work that had been borrowed for the exhibition from private collections (which is always interesting, because you rarely see these works displayed publicly).

This triptych was on of those. It was marked as ‘Private collection, Germany’, and mostly because of this work I wrote that I wouldn’t see it in my life-time. Guess what? We go to Frankfurt and one of the first works I see in the museum is this very triptych!  Future is never predictable; I, in particular, should know better.

The reason for its presence in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt is that the triptych was bequested to the museum in 2008 by its previous owner, Ms Dagmar Westberg:

For years the triptych was attributed to the unknown ‘Master of Frankfurt’, though more recent attributions assign this work to the so called ‘Master of Great Adoration’ and this his how it is described in the museum. They also described the time of creation less precisely (1516-1519) than in the book, where it confidently states 1517 as the year of creation.

Having this triptych hanging on a wall next to me, I had a chance to take more detailed pictures. The museum fortunately does allow taking pictures, though the light in the halls is dimmed and and so the pictures are not always of high quality.

Anyway, that’s what I got (I will show only the details related to the ‘mirror panel’, and the pictures here are also linked to the high-res images, in case of your interest):

Even this pictures allows to see more details, but I also could take even more ‘zoomed’ versions:

Which allows to see many interesting details, including, for example, a glass sphere-like gift that the Queen Sheba presents to the King Solomon:

I don’t see any reflection in this glass object (though I sense there should be some), and also to my thinking the light is not rendered very accurately, but this is not very surprising. The works of the Mannerists are often like that: they look incredibly photorealistic but in reality contain plenty of mistakes in terms of perspective and accuracy of rendering. But I should be the last, of course, who would require the accuracy of representation from the artwork.

Let’s go to the ‘mirror’ itself:

The objects that hangs on the baldachin above the King’s head looks like a convex mirror, framed in a massive metal or perhaps gilt wood frame, decorated with pearl-like gems around its perimeter, with the three large prominent pearls in 3, 6, and9 o’clock positions. There are also four prongs holding the glass objects in the frame.

As far as I can judge, nothing is reflected in its mirror surface, except some glimmers of light.  My own tools of ‘deep analysis’ (=basic solarisation filter in my version of Photoshop) also reveal nothing in this mirror surface:

I know that they conducted an infrared analysis of the painting in 1998 (it is mentioned in the book), and this analysis may reveal traces of reflection in this mirror surface – or maybe not. Looks like a letter to the research department of the museum is due.

The actual size of this ‘mirror’ is pretty big, the panel is about 1m high, so the mirror is about 10 cm tall. If the master had wanted to place something on this mirror surface, he would have had plenty of space to do so. This picture below also shows the size of the whole triptych:

It also shows the broader context a bit; the triptych is located in the very first hall of the Old Masters part of the museum, next to the works by Hans Memling (to the right) and Gerard David (to the left).  There are also astonishing masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Werden, Dierek Bouts and Quenteen Massys, among others, in this hall. In other words, the triptych is considered to be crème de la crème of the Flemish art.

A small additional point at the end, speaking about the panels (or the wings, how they are often called). Independent of which wing sits on the right or left side, they both wouldn’t cover the central panel if closed. In fact this triptych was not even designed to be closed, it only has one position: open. The panels also don’t have any images on their back sides. All that lead the experts to the conclusion the original owner commissioner of this work was “primarily interested in acquiring an art object rather than a devotional work since the liturgical use would have required that the triptych could be closed. Instead the triptych was intended to be displayed on the wall of an art cabinet or kunstkamer“. Whether it’s true or not, the current location of the triptych corresponds exactly to this alleged intended use.

Factual enrichments aside, this Meeting-am-Main was quite emotional for me, similar to what one experiences when encountering Serendipity in action. I knew about this work before having written about it only a week ago, so it was fresh in my memory, but it was shelved away as ‘unexpected to encounter’.

Our plan to go to Frankfurt was fairly spontaneous, and until the last moment we were hesitating whether we go to the Städel or the museum of contemporary art, which is also good. The Städel has won, and thus yet another ‘reunion’ with one of the famous mirrors-in-art has occurred, unexpectedly.

On this occasion I decided to establish a separate category of postings in this blog, Mirror Reunions (and the corresponding tag #mirror_reunion), that I will be placing the stories of my ‘meetings’ with art-mirrors. I have had quite a few of those during the last two years, but managed to write only about two so far – one about my unfortunate meeting with the Arnolfini portrait (Ghosts of the Arnolfini Portrait), and another about equally marred encounter with the triptych of Hans Memling (in the English version I blended it with my earlier posting about the Memling’s mirrors.  I may write more such mirror reunion postings, about the art-mirrors I bumped duribg the last three years, time-allowing.

PS: The text was kindly edited by R. who helped to correct many silly mistakes and omissions I keep making and also gave me a lot of advises on how to write more clearly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s