On the grand-grandmother’s mirrors, and more

This is will be a story about yet another church, and yet another altarpiece – and about mirrors, of course.  Following the suite of the two previous postings,  I would also like to start it with the pictures of the church – although this time I have only a small fragment of it, and also with a grossly modified hue, in memory of a terrible cold in the city in that day.

To my surprise, I even found a wikipedia article about this church, but only in German, not in English yet (here’s the text).  The church is called Petrikirche, and is devoted to Saint Peter. I assume that the picture of this church is relatively old, because by now its building is totally wrapped into other constructions, and it’s not that easy to take picture of the church alone (if at all).

Similar to many other buildings (and similar to the two previous churches I visited in that day), this one was also severely destroyed during the WWII, and one can see how the church looked liked at that time, in a small gallery at the entrance:

The man on the right is a volunteer, he was eagerly telling the story about the church and its famous altarpiece to the visitors; there were quite a few of them, actually, so compared to previous Propsteikirche this one could be called ‘crowded’. He was also very so kind as to show me the book about this church and even presented me a DVD with a video about this church (very interesting but albeit only in German).

Below is the picture I took from one of the old photographs, it shows the interior of the church around 1920s. One can see that it was relatively decorative church, especially for the protestant one:

Now it’s much more modest, the walls are nearly bare and there is no cathedra. There are not even benches, and instead I’ve seen only a few fairly secular chairs. I actually liked the way they arranged these chairs, in a circle around the pillars, thus changing the atmosphere from Gothic rectangular to soft and curvy ‘baroque’ (see below):

The above picture also shows the main treasure of the church, so called Wunderaltar (the Wonder Altar), or even the Goldenes Wunder von Westfalen. Here how its looks from a closer distance:

As you can easily see, the altar is huge, it’s more than 5,5 meters high and almost 7 meters wide.  It is also unusually three-dimensional, and consists of 36 panels with more than 600 figures carved of wood (when I write ‘unusual’ I mean ‘for these lands’; there even large, and ever more bizarre altarpieces in Spain or Italy, for instance, but they are not so typical for Northern Europe).

I am not going to show all its panels here, and will display just a few, to convey the look & feel of the altar.

The very top panel shows the Crucifixion, with the Christ himself somewhat submerged into the depth, while the two thieves are prominently protrude:

In general the whole altarpiece is a depiction of the Passion, or the scenes showing the last days and hours of Christ.

The altarpiece is behind a giant glass wall, but relatively close to the viewers, so one could make fairly detailed pictures of the panels. The only problem is the glares and reflections from this very glass wall that one needs to avoid – or may be actually use:

Here is the general view once again:

But all this splendor is only half of the story (and even less, in fact). The alter has a very complex structures, and besides this 3D panels also have another layer consisted of 2D paintings. They were selling a small paper copy of the altar, which I bought and which could help me to illustrate what I mean.

Here is the frontal view, somewhat similar to what I was showing earlier (this is called ‘first open state’):

But the side wings of the altarpiece can be closed, revealing one more ‘altarpiece’, so to speak, so called ‘second open state’:

And then finally these side wings can be closed too, resulting in a ‘closed state’:

The outer panels of the altarpiece show the miracle of eucharist, and the panels of the inner altarpiece show the pre-life of Christ, so to speak, including the scenes of life of his mother, Saint Mary, her own mother, Saint Anna, and even – which is relatively rare – the life of his grand-grand-mother, known as Emerentia.

In this sense I wasn’t lucky, because these panels were closed – and I knew that at least two of them do contain ‘mirrors’. I took few pictures from the book about this altarpiece, and I am also using the pictures of this altarpiece I found in the internet.

As i said, I knew that two panels depict ‘mirrors’. One of them was of ‘Emerentia at Her Prayer’, depicting the grand-grand-mother of Jesus in her bedroom.

The whole store of Emerentia is a bit of a puzzle. She is not mentioned in the Bible (or more accurately in the New Testament) and in fact (re)surfaced in the religious texts from the end of 15th – beginning of the 16th century. From these times one she is often depicted as a part of the genealogical trees of Jesus, but the works that would portray her separately are really counted.

Strictly speaking, I knew only one portrait of Emerentia before, by Jan Provost (c.1510); it’s in Louvre now, where she is described as ‘Saint Emerentia’ (although officially she was not sanctified).

Now, in her portrait on the panels of the Wonder-Altar I was obviously most interested in the mirror hanging in the window. Its characteristic shape resembled the one we saw in the work of Jan de Beer (see De Beer & The Grandma’s Mirror):

We clearly see the efforts to show that it is a glass/convex mirror (although I can’t recognize from my cope if it also shows any reflection; the best that I can spot is a something like a a window frame – but may be the one of another window).

The second panel depicts the birth of Saint Anna – who will one day give birth to Saint Mary:

And here, and similar to many other scenes of birth, we see a mirror-like object in the bed of Emerentia. We see many other objects with reflections (the trays, the bottles, and the pitcher on a small table), but the one in this ‘mirror’ should be most prominent one – alas, I don’t have a good enough copy to confirm if it has any reflection at all.  But this example just confirms, yet another time, that these mirror-like objects were important attributes of these scenes.

There were few more panels depicting the life of Emerentia. I will not be copying here all of them (at least now this time). The only one I would like to mention is the Vision of Emerentia (? – or a least this is how understood the meaning of this panel):

Few panels of the altarpiece depict already the life of Saint Anna, including the scene of her Annunciation (alas, no mirrors or ‘mirrors’ here):

And then the birth of Saint Mary:

It is the scene were mirrors are depicted fairly, but not this time.

The mirror also did’t appear in another famous scene, Annunciation (of Saint Mary this time), in many respect a mirror-champion:

It was great to get closer to these two mirrors, even if without a chance to see them ‘for real’, yet. However, to my pleasant surprise, I discovered two more mirrors! (in both cases also in the book, not on the real altarpiece).

One mirror is found in the mirror of Herod who is shown giving order to kill all the kids in the city (the sequel scene, the Massacre of the Innocents, has been immensely popular among the painter, but it is not depicted in the altarpiece).

The mirror depicted here is most likely a ‘mirror’, that is the object that was perhaps made out of convex mirror, but its functions were far from cosmetic. I was already showing such ‘mirrors’ on the throne of Herod (see the end of the story about ExtravagAnt! book/exhibition).

The only difference is in this case the ‘mirror’ is depicted in a such a way that it could be also seen as as a ‘crown’. I only want to add here that the ‘mirror’ on the throne is not per se a negative attribute, more likely it is a sign of power (and we find these objects on the thrones of many ‘good guys’, too, starting from the very good girl Mary – see Mirrors of the Virginal Thrones).

The last ‘mirror’ I found is different from all above. Technically speaking, we also find it in a throne (or rather baldachin of some sort):

But the person who is sitting there is unlikely a king or a bishop. The scene is known as Cleansing of the Temple, and it is in fact Christ who is depicted to the right, entering the temple where will expel the merchants soon.

This last mirror is also least clearly seen, and both the lack of good copy and lack of understanding of the exact role of this ‘mirror’ create yet another ‘mirror enigma’ (or in other words, open yet another quest to find the answers.)

A few factoids. The altar was created in 1521, in Antwerpen, where from it was later transported, in pieces. The panels were painted by the master Adrian van Overbeck, and the wooden sculptures were made by Jan Gilleszoon and his workshop, who also were in charge of the frames, and then for general assembly of the altar on the site.

I expect more ‘reunions’ with this wonder, and hopefully better pictures of its ‘mirror panels’.


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