New meetings with the old mirrors – now in Prado

New Year means new mirrors. Or maybe not so new (and maybe not even mirrors? ok, the latter was a Christmas joke).  But joking aside, this blog is running already for so long, that it should start creating the self-references, of all sort. I recently wrote about a few rendezvous with art-mirrors, and I feel that there will be of those in this blog in the near future. It is actually quite an amazing feeling, when you visit almost any museum and inevitably bump into either an already familiar work or at least a familiar artist. I almost want to have less of thoserendezvous, then!

For example, Las Meninas. My posting abut this famous painting was not only historically one of the first in the blog, it was a proto-historic posting written before the very idea of this art-mirror was coined.  And in somewhat funny way, the posting was in fact a prequel, so to speak, to the even earlier posting about re-interpretations of Las Meninas – you can still see the old slide-show I made out of all these remakes and homages here.  Yes, I would write these things differently now, and especially in terms of the mirrors in the work of Velasquez, but even in their current form the text is not that bad (for the blog, that is).

How much value can be added to these text the fact of our recent trip to Madrid and a personal visit to this famous painting (as evidenced by the photo above)?

Actually, not much, however said is to to say that. I mean, yes, it is interesting to stand a few minutes before this canvas, to assess it “with you own body,” so to speak, feeling its size, its color palette, and perhaps comprehend a bit better some details of its composition. But it all fades, sinks in a colossal size of the museum collection, with hundreds of other work you ‘must see’, the very dense crowds of visitors (not as bad as Louvre, but comparable); it is also spoiled by the ban on photography still imposed in the museum and strictly observed by the babushka-guardians (who stay ‘babushkas’ even when they not old, or not women even).

What remains is only ‘anthropology of art’, that is, not art itself but observation of the observers.

Of course, the above grunting is not fully justified, and of course the site-specific context does add to better understanding of the art works. But what composes this ‘context’, in this case of Las Meninas, for example? Other works by Diego Velazquez that I saw there? Or other works of other Spanish masters of his time? Our From walks in Madrid? or from inhaling the so-called “air of Spain”?

For example, I think I got a very interesting insight into Velázquez’ mirrors from staying on an otherwise unremarkable hotel in the center of the city – where I found a few amazing examples of mirrors (or rather amazingly kitchy ones):

I think that in many way they are quintessentially Spanish – we see a very typical mixture of bombastic self-exposure, gilding on everything, literally and figuratively, and all this with incredible aplomb and seriousness of the tank. Which at the end turns any kitsch in the epic, almost eternal story.

This aplomb, by the way, was very evident in the museum throughout. They got used to their royal, imperial even, role so much that consider barely acceptable only totally submissive, on-your-knees kind of position of the public. And it manifests not only in the ban of photography, but in many other things, big and small. For example, Prado still does not have its collection in the Google Art Institute; for the museum of such calibre it’s nothing but hyper-snobbish. Oh, well, then let them expect the middle finger in response.

The picture that I start my posting with (and which I took in a semi0secret way, obviously), can be confused with other similar works from Prado, found in abundance in the internet. Here are just some examples:

But these are not bootlegs, like my own pictures, but professional works of the same photographer, Thomas Struth, from Dusseldorf. About ten years ago he released a series of similar works showing people in Prado watching famous paintings (not only Las Meninas, but the latter became the most famous). He later published a book with these works, called Making Time; here its cover:

The cover shows the fragment of, perhaps, the most famous work of this series:

I have recently found a small interview with him about this project, where he also calls this work ‘the best’ – “I spent a whole week in the Prado, 8 hours a day [before I took it].”  What I do not understand is not how he took photographs himself, despite working with a large tripod on the wheels he mentions; it is not that impossible to get an official  permission from the museum for professional photographers like him; I don’t understand why there are some many other people on his photos also take pictures, too, and why they are not stopped by the guards – like myself many times.

(I like some of the Struth’s works, and dislike the others, but this specific series leaves me completely indifferent, to be honest. I don’t see much ‘anthropology’ here, and I am not very impressed photographically, either. To me, these works are not more (or less) interesting than any other snapshot in the museum – such as this one, which I came across while writing this posting:

Perhaps, it is not even truly ‘real’ one, and there was a certain degree of  ‘staging’ it; but in this staging appears more pure anthropology than in the whole series of ‘realistic’ works by Struth. But bah, who is me to  say all that – Thomas Struth is generally regarded as a top-notch master, one of the founders of the so-called Dusseldorf School of Photography (that includes, among others, another photo-star, Andreas Gursky).


Oh, well, let’s stop this photo-whining. What can I add factually, so to speak? Factually speaking, I am still quite surprise with how rarely mirrors were used in the portraits of various kings and queens.  If mirrors were to rare and so expensive back then (and they were), why we don’t see them more often in the vicinity of the royal people?

In fact, one of the earliest work that would depict such royal person with the mirror is a portrait of Marguerite de Navarre (known as Marguerite d’Angoulême in French):

This is not even a painting, but a leaf from a manuscript, made around 1530s, by an anonymous master.  What is the exact meaning of the work is also not clear. It could be Vanity (we see a comb, and jewellery on the table), but it can also be Memento mori (I tend to see a skull on the back side of the mirror, the one we see). The mirror could be flat, but it could be still a convex one, of old type.

But that’s about it, we don’t see any other work up until Las Meninas, made in 1656!

Well, here I have to admit that there was some use from wandering through the halls of Prado! In one of the neighbouring room I bumped into a couple of rather dark paintings, hanging next to each other. There were absolutely ‘unpopular’ so to speak, as people were passing through them not really paying much attention:

I am not sure why I did stop, but soon I didn’t regret – since I discovered an amazingly interesting mirror, apparently the same one in both of these works!

Both portraits are made by the same master, some Juan Carreño de Miranda, a very interesting painter, as far as I can judge. In many ways he could be call the successor of Velasquez, he played the exact same role for Carlos II, son of Philip IV, as Velasquez played for his father. He was not only a court painter, but also a curator of the royal collection, for example.

The left portrait depicts the very Carlos, when he was only 12 years old.

Despite being so young, he is already the king of Spain (his father died when was only four), although heis officially under the regency of his mother, Mariana of Austria (the same woman who is looking at us from the mirror of Las Meninas).

And speaking about mirrors, there are mirrors in this work, and not one but two, as they say today. Indeed, in the background of the painting we see large mirrors, framed into richly decorated and and symbolically loaded frames, blended with the wings of two giant eagles:

Moreover, the whole scene is actually taking place in so-called Hall of Mirrors (Sala de los Espejos), that apparently was the subject of a particular pride of Philip IV. Here he stored not only his mirrors but also the most valuable paintings of his collection (including, for example, the series Twelve Caesars by Titian).

Many of these works (and I am afraid, most of the mirrors, too) were destroyed during the fire in 1734. During this devastating fire the building basically burned down and many if its art treasures had been lost (or severely damaged, like in the case of Las Meninas). We didn’t manage to get to the new Royal Palace this time, and I don’t know if this Hall of Mirrors exist now.

There is another, even more known portrait of Carlos II by Miranda, in the same room and basically in the same pose, only more lavishly dressed. He is in the robe of the Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Here the young king is almost at the same spot as in the previous portrait, but the frames-eagles are not included in the paintings (or may be they were but then had been cut). The painting is now in the castle Rohr (Schloss Rohrau), in Austria.

The second portrait of a pair that I found in the Prado Museum shows Mariana of Austria herself – and we see the same mirror-eagles on a background as on the portrays of her son. It is basically the same room, only Marianna is not standing but sitting at the desk.

Here she is already a widow queen, meaning that Carlos II is now the official (though totally helpless) king. But despite many troubles of the turbulent political life in Spain after the death of Philip IV, Marianna managed to retain much of her influence until her death in 1696.

I didn’t managed to find any detailed description of this Hall of Mirrors, and its mirrors. Most likely they were collected for the king by Diego Velasquez himself – I read that he had his own collection consisting of eleven large mirrors.   I would obviously love to learn more about the room, and the mirrors, and also ideally about other paintings where these mirrors were depicted.

I didn’t find any more mirrors in other works by Juan de Miranda (although all I managed so far was only a quick internet search). But even these two already make an interesting bridge, between mirrors and (symbolism of) royal power, and perhaps power in general.

PS: Instead of conclusion, one more time the encounter with the beautiful:



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