Eucharistic doves, or The farther, the rounder

In my previous posting, about my mirror-reunion, I have opened a gestalt of some sort, when I wrote that did suffer from the un-opened altarpieces in this day.  The time came to close this gestalt, and tell the story about the rest of the day.

Since the town I visited first, Schermbeck, wasn’t that far from Dortmund, I decided to visit it too. The church you see on the picture above is called Propsteikirche, also known as the Saint John the Baptist church. I don’t know exactly how to translate the rank of the church; ‘propstei’ means provost, or rector and the churches of this kind are called Deanery in the anglican tradition. The meaning is that this church combines a few parishes, each of which remains somehow independent and self-standing; I would call it a meta-church, or trans-church.  But these are interesting but not so very important details for my story.

My main goal was to visit this church exactly because it contains another famous work by Derick Baegert, the so called Dortmund Triptych.

To cut the story short, this is what I found in the church:

A total failure, and in a number of ways. First, the altar was indeed closed (and there was no kind pastor to open it for me). The second is that the altar was in the closed zone, and the nearest place was about twenty meters far from the altarpiece.

But, as it often happens with the failures, it also brought some unexpected discoveries, as I will show later.

But let’s start with a more familiar view of this altarpiece. I am showing here only a small copy, but it’s linked to a much larger image, in case of your interest, and even better would be to visit the wikipedia page where you can find the links to each of the panels separately.

They are really wonderful, these panels, very detailed and also very emotional, a great example of the German wing of the Northern Mannerism school. The Saint Mary from the left panel of the altarpiece is perhaps one of the most copied depictions of the Virgin, at least in Germany, comparable to the Rafael’s Madonna from Dresden.

It is a pity that I haven’t see all these panels this time – but also a good excuse to visit Dortmund one more time (hopefully in a warmer season, it was freezingly cold in that day in the city).

Besides the beautiful Madonna there are many other remarkable things depicted in this work. For example, it contains lovely mini-landscapes, in the background, behind the main figures:

It is believed that the buildings depicted here are actually real one – or rather that they were real in the times of making this work, around 1510.

Interestingly, but this later picture also shows that the churches didn’t always had crosses on their roofs or belfries. In this case, for instance, we see a sign the sun and the moon, although under the same cock (compare it to the image of the church I started this posting with).

At some point researchers have compiled all these pieces together, and tried to reconstruct the view of the town at that time (again, there is a bigger picture linked to this small copy):

In any case, this time I was only able to see the back side of the triptych (the images above are from a set of old cards I bought in a local book shop)

Technically speaking, this triptych doesn’t have any ‘mirrors’. But processing both my own pictures and these cards that I bought, I was able to spot a few interesting ‘suspects’ so to speak.

The first one is again the clasp (or a medallion) on the chest of a saint:

The thing resembles a glass drop, or a large bead, and may in fact has some mirror qualities.

The second detail is even more interesting, it is large glass sphere under the feet of Jesus:

It looks like the so called Globus cruciger, one of the symbols of Christ the Salvator Mundi, or the Saviour of the World. But it misses some of the usual attributes of such sphere, for instance, a wrapping collar or the cross.  What we see can be see as a simple glass ball, albeit a large one.

Another rather strange aspect is that it depicts no the world but seemingly the same Dortmund as the landscape panorama above. For us today such depiction may seem a bit weird, comparable to the Glove of Australia, for instance. Worth remembering here that the spheric shape of Earth was still largely unknown then (and would be considered dangerously heretic even), and Earth was seen as a flat disk.

But symbolic, or metaphoric meaning aside, we see here a fairly accurate representation of the scene reflected in a convex mirror; the master clearly had to have one in his possession to be able to create such a bended image.


Here I could stop my story; I have seen the altarpiece, although from a long distance and closed, but it was still very interesting. But then I walked around the church and spotted a few other interesting things (I have to add here that the church itself was not the most exciting things to see. It was ok, nice and airy, but similar to many other churches in the area, it was half-destroyed during the WWII, and reconstructed after. This was relatively lucky, in fact, since not only its main altarpiece has survived but also few other old fragments, such a Gothic portal, now distributed over the building here and there.

One of such ‘other things’ was another altarpiece (or perhaps some panels of such altarpiece) that were hanging on one of the walls.  

What you see is already very lightened picture, in reality the panels hand in a very dark corner of the church. Plus, they are in a very bad conditions, especially in comparison the recently restores altarpieces of Derick Baegert I’ve seen, in this church and earlier in Schermbeck.

I didn’t find any plate nearby that would describe these panels. Only later, in a small brochure that I found in the church, I read that the altarpiece is called ‘Rozenkrantzaltar’, and it is believed to be created circa 1523 by the master from Cologne known as Meister Hilgardus. Now, the name seemed to be confusing first, because I thought it refers to the Christian Rosenkreuz, a semi-legendary founder of the Rosicrucian Order (or the Order of the Rosy Cross). Small issue is that this order was founded one century later.

But then I read that it is related to a different story, and that altarpiece’ name is a reference to the Confraternity of the Rosary, a religious association whose members were obliged to pray an entire rosary every week. The association was strongly affiliated with the  Dominican Order, and apparently the church earlier belonged to this order, so the commission of the altar.

But I read all these details later, but when in the church itself I was intrigued by a very close compositional similarity of the Annunciation scene on this altar with the panel I have just seen in Schermbeck.

It would be great, of course, to also detect a mirror (or ‘medallion’) in this bed of Saint Mary too. Alas, I didn’t find any traces, although it remains to be possible, because the condition of the panels is pure, as I said, and restoration may help many many new (or rather old) things to resurface.

I played with a few filters, trying to spot the traces of such ‘mirrors’ in the two potential spots, in the bed and nearby, but as I said, alas:

Another possible place to find another mirror was another bed (or may be it was the same bed, of Saint Mary). But this time it is the scene of her death – although Mary looks amazingly young here.

When I was already at home, I found few other interesting elements in these panels. For example, one of the panels depict the crowned Saint Mary with the Child Christ, with a patron (Saint Dominic?), sitting on a Moon (?!). Mary holds a rosary in her hand, and they are all surrounded by a circle composed from the beads of some sort; this large circle could also be a representation of a rosary.

There is another, smaller aura behind Mary. This shining aura is usually called aureola (not to be confused with areola). This thing is also called ‘nimbus’ sometimes, but it’s not very accurate. The nimbus is a shining circle usually depicted above, or behind the heads of the divine figures or saints.

Aureola is a much larger shining, or glowing, or otherwise light-emitting area, that is placed behind an entire figure (most often the figure of Saint Mary, but sometimes other characters, like Christ himself):

The debates about whether Christianity borrowed this symbol or created own authentic concept, are old and inconclusive. Without any intention to fuel any holy war, I simply state my own take on the matter. I believe that this, as well as many other symbols of Christianity, are taken from the Buddhist iconographic tradition (which itself is deeply rooted in the Ancient Indian (religious) art. Similar symbol was actively used there from time immemorial (though I don’t have any chance to track its evolution in details here):

Moreover, in the Indian iconographic tradition this symbol also had solid mathematical roots. The shape of ‘aureola’ corresponds to the overlapping area of the two circles intersecting with each other in such a way that the center of each circle also lays on the circumferences of another circle.

There is a lot of ‘useful’ mathematical qualities of this formation (for instance, it is the easiest way to obtain the square root of 3).  And this shape was of course also loaded with lots of symbolic meanings (an interplay of the Sun and the Moon is just one of them).

As we can see, in the earlier Indian tradition (and later in the Byzantium iconography, for instance) the depiction of ‘aureola’ was fairly accurate.

But then the original meaning (and the way of making this shape) was lost or forgotten. Without a solid foundation the shape can be seen as a nice, but fairly arbitrary one. For instance, its other name in the European tradition is ‘mandorla’, the word that comes from the name of ‘almond’ in Italian. To be precise, the shape of almond nut does not exactly correspond to the shape of geometrical ‘aureola’  – but close enough from a layman’s point of view. This is how the sifts in meaning occur all that time, someone takes a closet approximation, a lookalike, and then others start deriving the meaning from this new (arbitrary modified) object.  I don’t want to blame here the Europeans only, the very Indians also made their own contribution to these symbolic confusionism when they started to describe such forms as ‘lotus’, for instance.

But all in all, the form of aureola got traction in Europe too, and also a number of additional attributes, for example, its shining nature and goldish hue (the word ‘aureola’ comes from aurum, gold in Latin):

As I said, in the later Christian texts the ‘aureola’ obtained many other qualities, attributes, and connotations – for instance, in some sources it is directly associated with the Tabor Light that shone during the Transfiguration of Christ.

But I if return to the panels in the Dortmund church, one interesting aspect is that the aureola in this case is also surrounded by yet another circle, the latter alluding to the rosaries as I gather.  There few more ’rounds’ in these panels as well.

The Dove representing the Holy Spirit in the scenes of Annunciation is often also depicted with his mini-aureolas, but it wasn’t in this case. However, on other panel from the altarpiece we see the Dove is in such shining circle, and is also put in the same place where there usually located the symbols of heraldic power (see the post about Mirrors of the Virginal Thrones).

The exact meaning of this scene is not clear. It is described in the brochure that I got as a version of the Holy Family, with Saint Anna (the grandmother of Jesus) and Saint Mary on the throne. However, this could be also interpreted as the so called ‘mystical marriage’ of Saint Catherine where child Christ usually presents her with a ring.

The second example of a ‘circle’ is more down to earth, but equally interesting. Here we see a sermon read from a cathedra (or is it a mass, and thus the priest is behind an altar?)

The round object could be again a reference to rosary, but could also mean something else (I often see such ‘wreathes’ or ‘garlands’ as a sign of protection, of a house, for instance):

I would be able to decode the writing on the panel, but the same brochure says that it is the following saying:

Dic – obsecro te – quod soror mea sis, ut vivat anima mea ob gratiam tui,

which is a quite from Genesis (12:13)

“Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”


As I said, there were few more artifacts in the church. When being there I just took a few pictures, and only later read more about their history. For instance, this candelabrum with the figure of Saint Mary, again surrounded by the beams forming the aureola:

As I learned, the figure itself was carved in 1490, and the encasement was made in 1523.

And finally I encountered something very remarkable. What you see below is just an entrance to the side chapel of the church with a Gothic portal, one of the few remaining old details:

But inside of the chapel I found yet another altar, with an altarpiece made of the stained glass window and a symbol of Holy Spirit, the white Dove:

The most interesting thing was, of course, a strange – round (!), flame-like (!!) object on the Dove’s chest:

And in the very middle of this symbol I found – ok, not a mirror, but a glass sphere, or a lens!

It was an amazing find, the Dove aka Holy Spirit represented by a Mirror-Lens! I wonder if this lens really ‘works’, ie, that it can focus the light from behind (from the window) and direct to the altar.  That would be completely smashing performance, the miracle of eucharist triggered by the sunlight!  And even if it’s not true, the very opportunity of such light-work was quite an insight for me.

I read that the name of the chapel is Blessed Sacrament, and that it was created in its current form in 1969, by some Reinhold Schröder (to put it in a (personal) perspective, the Dove is jus a bit younger than me.

I have one more adventure in Dortmund in that very day, but I will have to write a separate posting about.


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