Mirrors of the ‘Male Cluster’

I initially planned to write this posting as one more mirror rendezvous, similar to a few other encounters I had in Madrid (see one about Las Meninas here, and one about Jan de Beer, and a whole collection of art-mirrors I found in Thyssen).

But when I started to write about this Werl Triptych I ‘met’ in Prado, it triggered more thoughts then merely nostalgic, I started to dig for more works, and then even more one, and as a result I wrote something very different then simple rendezvous.

Though the memory part still plays a fairly important here. The posting about this triptych by Robert Campin was indeed one of the earliest one in this blog (see The Lamb and the Mirror). I re-read it and found that it’s still ok – I mean, it is very short, as all my early postings, and also very naive, but at the same time it still described the basic facts, so I won’t be repeating them here. But my purpose back then was simply to compile a collection of art-mirrors. Later these simple ‘bricks’ allowed me to make more interesting comparisons and draw a bit less banal conclusions (or so I hope).

Here is the art-mirror from the triptych (although in the Prado Museum it is presented as two panels, the central part is lost):

I also re-read the wikipedia article about this triptych (The Werl Triptych) and found that the link with the Arnolfini’s portrait by Jan van Eyck has become even stronger. Earlier it was just mentioned, and now the two mirrors are presented as a couple. I myself also mentioned that connection in my early posting.

Today, after the years of researching the issues of art-mirrors, I believe that Arnolfini’s mirror is in fact not a mirror but a ‘mirror’, or the ‘so-called mirror’, or even a mirror-like ‘something else’.  Equipped with this knowledge, I obviously see its connection with the Campin’s mirror more problematic.

Instead, I see it more connected with another art-mirror I met in Madrid: 

I wrote about this meeting already – it is the very first mirror in the series described here; and I also wrote about this panel by Gabriel Mälesskircher few years ago (see Unicorns in the Proximity of Golgotha).

Interestingly, but then these two mirrors *almost* met, the postings about them are not that far from each other in the blog. But I didn’t connect them, at least in any explicit way.

But now I wold like to explore not only them together, but also to reflect a bit over the ‘cluster’ they create:

The above image is my effort visually describe the cluster I have in mind using something resembling the Venn Diagram (although it’s not exactly this tool).

Anyway, the right, pink circle combines all art-mirrors that are related to ‘woman’, being it St. Mary or another biblical personage, or even a profane women, so to speak. I wrote about many works with such mirrors (and some of them happened to be ‘mirrors’, upon careful examination – for example, the ones hanging in the beds of St.Mary during the Annunciation).  During the times I am writing about (15th – beginning of the 16th century) the majority of the mirrors have very positive connotations, although we also, and increasable see the examples of ‘negative’ mirrors, such as in the works of Bosch or Baldung.

The left, blue circle are the ‘male’ mirrors.  Of course, there are some overlapping examples, most notably the mirrors in the scenes of St.Luke painting Madonna (I wrote extensively about this ‘cluster’ in this posting – Meta-Hodegetria, or the Saint Mirrors).   There were few other examples of ‘male mirrors’, for instance, placed on/in the thrones of various rulers (e.g. Herod).

But if define the cluster I am interested in as 1. not female, 2. not St.Luke painting Madonna, 3. not throne mirrors, then the only works I could show will be these two (and one of them is on the very edge, since it does, in fact, depicts St.Luke – but in the absence of the Virgin).

It just happened that during our trip to Spain I have received one more example of the ‘art-mirror’ from this cluster:

This is not my pictures, I got it from the friends who visited Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and sent me this photograph (almost in a real-time way, by sms from the museum hall!)

I actually knew about this work before, but had only a fragment of it in my collection, and never managed to track its name and the author. I always considered it a Portrait of a Monk. I know a bit more now.

This panel is attributed to the so called Master of the Aachen Altar, and depicts some Johann von Melem Junior (or (Hans von Melem, if to follow German way of naming). The latter was a known merchant from Franfurt who apparently commissioned this panel as a birthday gift for himself. His date of birth is assumed to be between 1455 and 1460, and the writing on the panel says he is 37 here – thus, the date of this work is believed to be 1492-1497 (the plate in the museum says 1490-1520, but this is a very broad scope, it is basically the total span of the activities of the master).

Speaking about the mirror itself, it is, perhaps, one of the very best examples of convex mirrors from this time. The convex mirror depicted here is quite large in itself, and it is also shown at a very close distance, the portrait is composed almost as a close-up. Its reflection is also very accurate, and all in all, it us a true ‘mirror masterpiece’

But in the context of this posting, it is also yet another example of the non-female mirrors I am talking about. The striking difference between this work and two earlier cases is the lack of explicit religious link here. I don’t exclude that we could find some evidences the religious connections (and that the ‘merchant’ would turn to be a ‘monk’ or a ‘bishop’, or even a ‘saint’ later on, after more careful examination).  But meanwhile, he is not any of the above (and thus he’s not Saint Luke, and not on a throne).

Having these three works next to each other, one can inevitably start wondering wether we  find more of such ‘male mirrors’ (at least I did).


Before I will show few more examples I found I would like to first – and explicitly – formulate my current hypothesis about these ‘male mirrors’. Based on a few years of my research into ‘female mirrors’ – that were, as I found, not really mirrors in our current sense of the world, but rather devotional objects made using glass/convex mirrors as material, I suspect a very similar story here. Basically, all these things that you have seen above (and will see below) are not mirrors, but some sort of symbolic/ritualistic objects that were used for, or in certain symbolic/ritualistic practices. I don’t now yet how these things were called, and what were those practices, this is still a puzzle to solve.


Now, speaking about ‘other examples’.

I first went through my collection – which itself is not a very easy task by now! It contains almost 9 (nine!) thousands (!!) art-works, many of them described and documented (for example, tagged, if they are stored online) and additionally at least a couple of thousands of ‘other things’ that I can’t properly describe, yet. So, it does take a time to look through this stack of art-mirrors.

With some surprise, but I found that I did already show at least one example of such ‘male mirror’, in my earlier post about Simon Marmion (see Mirrors on the Way to Hell, and Back). There I add one illumination attributed to Marmion and depicting St.Mathew – and what I called a convex mirror back then:

The illumination is called St. Matthew in his Studies (and it’s not exactly clear for me what is the role of angel in the scene). The Book of Hours where this illustration is found is dated circa 1450-1475, which is very broadly.


I’ve never shown the next miniature although it was in my collection for a whole already. I first thought to tell about it when describing the Mystère de la Vengeance (see Psychoanalytical Layers of Medieval Mirrors) – but I didn’t at the end:

The leaf depict a very interesting chap, some Jacques de Guise, a famous French writer whom we would call ‘historian’ today. He lived in the 14th century, but the exact dates of his own life are known, paradoxically for the historian; rather vaguely, he is described as living in 1340 – 1400.

When I say ‘French’ here, it should be understood with some reservations, of course, as it wasn’t France-as-one-state as it is known today, but rather a patchworks of various kingdoms, dukedoms, and counties. One of the most famous books written by de Guise was the history of one such county, so called Comté de Hainaut, or to follow the Flemish way of naming, Graafschap Henegouwen, or Hennegau. As it is seen from the map below, the land was at the very intersection of many European ‘Games of Thrones’, and its history was expectedly very replete.

Perhaps it is because of this complexity, manifested also in a large size of his Annales Historiae Illustrium Principum Hannoniae, the books didn’t enjoy large circulation. However, it became much more popular in a slightly abridged form, made by Jean Wauquelin who was also commissioned to translate it to French by Philip the Good, half a century later.

The book is also very well known thanks to the miniature by Rogier van der Weyden that shows Jean Wauquelin presenting the finished work to Philip; I think that this illumination is one of the most frequently used examples of ‘Medieval Miniature’ (which is not very accurate, because chronologically speaking it already belongs to the Renaissance age).


Apparently, some of the later editions of the book also included pictures of its original author – like in this case, in the volume made around 1465 with the illustrations by the Master of Ramburs (?).  The illumination I have shown above depicts Jacques de Guise – and an interesting ‘mirror’ on the window of his studies.

Design-wise this mirror is very similar to the previous ones, its location (on a window frame) makes it similar to the ‘mirror’ in the studies of Saint Luke by Mälesskircher, although its placement resembles even more the one of the mirror on the panel by Jan de Beer


At some point I got lucky and found the miniature that clarified many things at once. I spotted in the book called ‘Western European Illuminated Manuscripts 8th to 16th Centuries’ byTamara Voronova & Andrei Sterligov. Not only the book is relatively rare, but it also describes the examples of miniature from the Russian (mostly Hermitage) collections not so familiar to the Western researchers of today.

As in the case of ‘female mirrors’, the very presence of two different mirrors on one image helps to better understand the difference between the mirrors and ‘mirrors’. In case of ‘female mirrors’ the very first example of such two-mirror pictures was the panel by de Beer I just mentioned (though later I found few more examples of similar works). In the case of male mirror I have only one example, but it is so telling that one is more than enough.

Despite all its late-Medieval / early Renassiance look&feel the above picture is aimed to illustrate a much older story. The book made around 1500 is in fact an edition of the so called Moralia by Plutarch. Today this Greek author of the 1st century CE is better known for his Lives (the one of Alexander the Great is perhaps the most known, but he also wrote few others). However, at that time his collection of moralistic stories was equally, if not more famous among the educated folks.

Today the true authorship of this stories is a subject of debates, and some of them are considered later additions, or revisions. And in any cases, the stories created at the time when Christianity hardly existed had been read, and interpreted very differently in its the climactic times (and also prone to various anachronisms, as sen in this case).

This specific story, or moralia,  describes a series of wise advises that Plutarch gives to some young Pollianus and Eurydice due to their forthcoming marriage (Eurydice here means not the Greek nymph, but a real person who, similar to Pollianus, lived in Delphi around the end of the 1st century CE. Apparently, the advises by Plutarch were good, and well received, since the couple is known for their happy marriage, resulted, among other things, in three children.

One of the advises that Plutarch gave them was about the ‘Moral Use of a Mirror which Reflects both Vices and Virtues’, and the miniature illustrated this very distinction, between Good and Not so Good Mirrors (ora rather Proper or Not so Proper use thereof).

First, Plutarch explains that there two types of mirrors, the ones that reflect the truth, and the ones that distort it. Surely, one has to use the former type of them, despite the latter kind could be framed in rich, gilded frames. The explanations relate to the real mirrors, but the meaning is of course broader, and implies more a way of perception of, and of thinking about the world.

The next advise deals with the use of the ‘right mirrors’, and follows the the same logic: if the mirror tells you the truth, it’s then pointless to waist your time to ignore or hide it. For example, if the mirror shows to a woman (a future wife) that she is not particular attractive, than she shouldn’t deny it and spend time on beautifying herself, trying in fact to imitate external beauty. Instead she would better focus on her inner virtues, such as obedience and service to her husband and family.

My versions of these advises are very short and simplified, the original way used by Plutarch consists of long and grandiloquent passages, so I skip them here. I found one source of these Morals here; it’s readable but doesn’t have a particularly friendly interface, I am sure there should be better versions on the web, too.

It is also not exactly clear who is portrayed on this illustration. One version is that the man is Plutarch himself, another option is that we see the family of Pollianus and Eurydice, with the father giving an advise to his three kids.

Worth noticing that we also see here two different types of mirrors, one hanging on wall, and one is a desk-top model. Obviously, Plutarch meant very different mirrors (he could refer only to the metal ones), and these design illustrated the mirrors of the end of 15the century, not the 1st one. I don’t think that the images also implies that the wall mirrors are always ‘bad’, and smaller desk-top versions are ‘good’. In principle, the nature of the mirror is in the intention of the user.  As we see on all previous examples, wall mirrors could be ‘good’…


…but so are their table versions, too:

This is the leaf from another book, so called Speculum Maius, or The Great Mirror, written by a Dominican monk Vincent of Beauvais in the middle of the 13th century.  This was a giant work, consisting of four volumes,  Speculum naturale (The Mirror of Nature), Speculum historiale (The Mirror of History), Speculum morale (The Mirror of Moral) и Speculum doctrinale (The Mirror of (Christian) Teaching).  Altogether they were forming an Encyclopedia Britannica of the Middle Ages, a comprehensive compendium of knowledge and ideas.

This specific edition is of much later times, it was written in Brugges around 1478-1480, by some Jean de Vignay who translated the originally Latin text into French. The illuminator of this volume remains unknown.

What we see is the very Vincent of Beauvais who creates his Mirrors

We also see an interesting object standing on a background. It looks like a small convex mirror on a stand, placed on a chest of some sort. It could be merely a token, a reference to the title of the book, but could be also a ‘device’ used by the writer in his work. One very tempting version is that it is a lens, used for reading, but in reality people learned how to make these lenses of this size only about two centuries later.

My version thus is that it is a device for contemplation and (self) focusing, perhaps also a way to ‘clean one’s thoughts. In any case, an important tool for any serious writer and thinker.

In this context I would obviously like to look one more time at the ‘mirror’ in the studio of Christina de Pizan (see The Mirror of the Book of the City of Ladies).

When writing about this object few years ago, I have attributed it, without much hesitation, to the ‘femininity’ of the scene – and that even despite the fact that all other ‘mirrors’ in this story had nothing to with ‘femininity’ per se, and instead referred to the symbolism of Reason and Wisdom.

So is the power of my own ‘distorted vision’ 😦


This miniature could be yet another ‘old new mirror’ – I used to have a copy of this work for quite a while, but couldn’t find out where it is from, and what is going one here:

Finally I managed to track the sources, and at least can tell a story; not as ancient as the one about Plutarch but still relatively  aged.

The book where this leaf belongs to is called Histoire de Charles Martel and in many ways comparable to the Speculum Maius by its size and sheer scope. It describes live and works (or rather fights) of Charles Martel, a grandfather of Charlemagne.  The book was commissioned by Philip the Good, who requested that the text was to be written by his court chronicler David Aubert, and illustrations to be made byLoyset Liédet, a well-known miniaturist.

The project was colossal, the original ideas was to produce ten large volumes, that would become the gem of the already rich library of Philip (it contained more than 700 large volumes, not counting smaller scrolls and separate leaves).

The work started in the end of 1466 – beginning of 1467, but unfortunately in the summer of this year Philip died. Luckily for the book his son, Charles the Bold, supported the project and provided financial support. The book was completed only in 1472, and in total seven volumes were made (although we now have only four of them).

Liedet has created over one hundred of miniatures, and few more were also made by other authors. Except a few leaves that were teared off the book and sold on the auctions, the main set is currently stored in the Royal Library in Brussels (where I keep planning to go for about ten years or so; longer, perhaps, that the time required to create this book).

Interestingly, but the scene depicted here is not a traditional ‘presentation’ but more a ‘making off’ moment. We see here David Aubert himself, working on the book – and fighting with a deadline, as I sense, since it isCharles the Bold who came to check the progress. A very interesting scene, full of interacted details and very charged emotionally.

Myself, as it often happens, I am mostly interested in the mirrors – and in this case the one we see clearly belong to the very ‘male cluster’ described above.

All the contextual signs point that this mirror is not here for ‘cosmetic’ reasons. It is surrounded by the rosary and the broom, similar to the ones we saw on the Arnolfini Portrait. Of course, and similar to this very portrait all these objects could be also easily misunderstood: for examples, the ‘broom’ on the painting by van Eyck is often regarded mere besom of some sort, as if to dust the house. More likely it was the device to clean the house, but symbolically, not literally. Water sprinkling can be involved here too, as the jars and pitchers on the table allude.

I mentioned the Arnolfini Portrait here also because it became an immediate reference for this work. Almost without an exception, every work of the 15th century (and often even later ones) that depict mirror are now considered as remakes, or reinterpretations of the Arnolfini.  Which in turns shows that the objects we call ‘mirrors’ are only seen as optical tricks of some sort, and not as the real devices or tools really used by people back then, perhaps with the purposes strikingly different from our use of mirrors.


The last example that I found was this miniature:

Again, even if one knows nothing about the exact meaning of this scene, the large convex mirror depicted here is clearly not ‘female’. There is a chance that this mirror could be seen as the ‘throne’ one. But I would discard this version, and not only because it is not on the throne, but because the thrones ‘mirrors’ are never depicted as being used, that is, nobody usually look at them.

Here, of course, the situation is different, we clearly see the ‘usage’ of this mirror, by the old man.

As it turned out, this is also an illustration of a very old text, the book by Quintus Curtius Rufus, a historian from Ancient Rome who lived around 1st century CE. His only survived book is Historiarum Alexandri Magni Macedonis, the description of life and acts of Alexander the Great (known as Alexander Macedonian too). Very little is known about this author, and the authenticity of the text has been regularly questioned, but nevertheless, it was a very popular text in Europe since the Middle Ages.

This particular edition was also commissioned, by Charles the Bold, who requested to translate the originally Latin text into French. The translation was done by someVasco de Lucenta, a Portuguese (?) who arrived to Brugge and lived there for a while; he later also worked at the court of the Maximilian I in Aachen.  I found that the illumination for the book were created by the so called ‘Master of English Chronicles’, but I didn’t find anything about him, yet.

The volume was created around 1470-80. The book where I found this example (Vlaamse Miniaturen 1404-1482) says that the illumination was influenced by the earlier miniature I was just talking about, of Philip the Good visiting the studies of David Aubert.

Strictly speaking, the plot here is very different, the scene is described as “Alexander the Great Demands to be treated as the God, similar to other Eastern Despots”.  The episode may refer to several instances in the life of Alexander, but in none of them a mirror played any role, or was even mentioned explicitly in the texts. And again, even it were, it would be a metal mirror, not a glass convex mirror of that type.


Here I could as well stop this post, concluding that there are few clear examples of depicting mirrors in the scenes that have nothing to do with female characters, and specifically not related to Saint Mary, which may in turn suggest that the ‘mirrors’ were also used by men, and with the purposes far from merely cosmetic.


The exact purpose of such ‘male mirrors in the walls’ are not very clear to me. I tried to formulate it earlier as ‘symbolic/ritualistic’, but I would obviously like to know more details about them.

More as a way of laying down the future research plans, I would like to also show ф few more examples of the ‘mirrors’. Not all of them are strictly speaking ‘male mirrors’ in my definition, but they still could shed some light (sic!) on the matters.

Let’s look at this miniature, for example:

We see here a fairly typical scene of book presentation, by an author/maker to a commissioner or patron. In this case the patron is Joan of Navarre, who was the queen of Navarra, but more known as the queen of France, after she married Philip IV 1284.

The author of the presented book is Durand de Champagne, the Franciscan monk who was also a life-long confessor of the queen, and the book is called Speculum Dominarum, or A Mirror of Queenship. As the title suggests, this was a compendium of rules and advises on how the good Christian queen should be ruling. The book itself was written at the very end of 13th century, and not later than 1305, when Joan of Navarre died.

However, this specific edition was created much later, around 1428, as also seen from the dresses of the queen and her ladies. The mirror we see on the background is a bit strange: it could be just a symbolic reference to the title of the book, but also a representation of the real object of that kind. In the latter case it is a bit strange object, of course, as it looks like a hybrid between a wall mirror and a table-mirror (or at least a mirror on a stand).

In another version of the same book made a bit later, around1450, the same mirror is transformed into a colossal visor, showing a zombi-like, otherworldly figure.

In no way this is a real object in this room, most likely it represents an imaginary device, use for the purposes unknown to me yet (although the design of the artifact shown here could have been inspired by the real table mirrors of that time).

Some while ago I tried to compile the examples of such mirror-visors (see Mirror TV Sets of the Middle Ages). I tired to write that post in a bit of humorous way, but apparently failed completely, because then the whole text was regarded as one bad joke. I am still very much puzzled by this topic, and will try get back to that soon.

Speaking about the recipient of the book (and then the likely user of this huge mirror-visor), Jeanne de Navarre, interestingly enough but she has appeared in this blog very recently, and in a very different context. I was writing about ‘royal mirrors’ we found in Madrid (see New meetings with the old mirrors), and briefly mentioned that her portrait with a mirror was one of the earliest ‘royal mirrors’ I’ve ever found:

Well, first I need to correct the statement about the ‘earliest’, both these miniatures are older that the portrait made around 1530s. But also the connection of Jeanne de Navarre with mirrors becomes ever more interesting.

A very different strategy is not to dig ‘nearby’ or ‘earlier’, but instead look at the later examples, that could manifest certain developments even stronger (I usually call this approach Hegelian, after Friedrich Hegel who insisted that phenomena is better understood by the analysis of its later developments, rather then the earlier signs).

Following this logic we can look, for instance, at the following etching, made around 1610:

It is called Duodecim specula deum, and shows twelve different ‘blesses’ ways to use mirrors.

Or we can look at another art-work, the drawing by Simon Cock made around 1550, depicting the large convex mirror (Der Rechten Spieghel, the right or righteous mirror) as the way to gain the true love (of God).



Again, this would be it – but I can’t resist the temptation to show one more example or art-mirror that I found when looking for the materials for this posting. For years I was looking for the mirror that would be in the proximity of – or ideally used by – the Main Man of the European civilisation of the last two thousands years. My nearest attempt was the panel of the Wedding in Cana, by Juan de Flandes (see Mirrus Christ!), but the exact link of the mirror on a wall and Jesus was not quite clear there.

Finally, finally!

Harmen van SteenwyckJesus with Martha and Marie (~1650)

I wrote extensively about this scene, of Jesus in the house of Martha and Marie (see M & M Inside Out), and also argued there that the mirror depicted by Caravaggio has nothing do with the topic of ‘femininity’ but instead is fully loaded with the symbolisms of the Christian teaching. But – there was not Christ himself in that work. Now he is, and the ‘mirror’ (his mirror), is absolutely central in this work (both compositionally and to understanding its meaning).

In some way the black dot of this mirror also places a fat dot to the story, of the Medieval ‘male’ mirrors; the cluster is full.



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