The secrets of the third mirror of Hans Memling

As I wrote at the end of my post about the art-mirrors of the Chicago Institute of Art, the encounter with one of them was particularly powerful – though the work itself, as you can see, as an epitome of calmness and tranquility.

When I saw the face, with these characteristic semi-closed eyelids, bow lips, and a typical mix of refined contemplation with the purest simplicity, my inner voice was bound to exclaim Wow, that looks like Memling!

But. The mirror? How comes the mirror? We all know that Memling had two mirrors – and of them in a very similar composition, in the famous Nieuwenhove Diptych (see Speculum sine macula, postmodo: Memling, Madonna, Apple, Mirror).  (The other mirror of him is of very, very different nature, and in a number of ways – see Hem and Haw on the Hell, and Wow!

Those were the earliest postings in this blog, written even before this blog was coined, during the Livejournal age. I can’t read them without crying now, they are very superficial and primitive, and yet arrogantly ambitious. In this case they also reflect how shallow was the data gathering, to the extent that I have missed one of the most important mirrors of the era, this one:

I don’t want to say that I did read any books when preparing those earlier postings, but apparently I didn’t get the Memling’s catalogue raisonné; if I would have it back then, I’d picked this work too, and my story about Memling’s mirrors would be already better. But so is life, and let’s hope that later is still better than never.

As a weak self-excuse I can mention that this work is also missed in the WikiArt, an online art archive that otherwise gathers comprehensive collections of the art works of different artists. I later found it in the most complete volume about Memling,  Hans Memling: The Complete Works, published in 1994 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death (a bit weird tradition, if you ask me). The edition was edited by some Dirk de Vos who for many years was a curator of the Groeninge Museum in Brugge and who is regarded one of the largest authorities on so called ‘Flemish Primitivists’ (I always thought it’s a very stupid name, but, well, no one asked my opinion on that matter).

As a result, I got in my mind the maxima ‘One Memling – Two Mirrors’; wrong one, as it happened, and so is my shock during this encounter.

The most astonishing thing about this panel is that it’s also a diptych! Currently in the museum the two panels of the diptych are presented like that:

The second panel depicts Saint Anthony of Padua, but the museum itself says that it is, in fact, the rear side of the panel. The front side is apparently in such a bad condition that they decided to hide it from the public, at least temporarily.

There is a photograph showing how the second panel looks (and below is already a photo of a photo presented in the museum):

(Unfortunately, they didn’t show the rear view of the panel with Madonna).

But closer to the Mirror №3:

In terms of design, it is not a particularly remarkable mirror. It’s not very large, its frame is relatively simple (it’s not easy to say whether it’s made of wood or metal), and it hangs on a simple nail. The mirror is obviously convex, as they didn’t make any other glass mirrors back then. The panel is dated around 1480s-1490s (which means that it’s late Memling, he is believed to be born in 1430s and died in 1494).

Despite its apparent simplicity, the mirror here is the most mysterious element –  also because of what we see it its reflection.

What we see are two heads – but not of Madonna and Child Christ, and not of the unknown patron! It is not even clear where these two persons could be in the composition. Trying to figure out this, we need to look at the whole diptych, and ideally (re)assembling it in its original manner (even if as a mental experiment for a moment).

I assume that this diptych employs the same trick as its older ‘brother’,  the Nieuwenhove Diptych:

In the catalogue the new diptych by Memling (new for me, that is) goes under the number 55 (and is described as the Diptych with a Young Man Kneeling Before the Virgin and the Child), while Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove‘s number is 78. But in reality it’s not so simple, there are a lot of problems with accurate attribution of the majority of Memling’s works, the maximum we can get is the delta of 10-15 years.

Just to make a reference more clear, here’s how the Nieuwenhove Diptych looks in real life:

The diptych is currently in the Memling Museum in Brugge, also known as the Sint-Janshospitaal. It was indeed a hospital in the past, and so now it hosts an exhibition of various medical gizmos, from manuscripts to old vials with potions, to the medieval surgical instruments. We’ve been to the museum in Brugge last year, but I didn’t write the story about this trip, alas.

There is another important work by Hans Memling in this museum, the still greatly revered artifact known as the Shrine of St. Ursula. I do not know exactly what of St. Ursula is in the reliquary, but during the Memling’s time the shrine was believe to be a very powerful healing agent, and the place was one of the most popular pilgrimage site in Northern Europe. (I wrote about Ursula and her sad fate – and strange connection to mirrors – in the the posting Speculum ursus pontufex):

It is believed that all panels of the reliquary were painted in the Memling studio (though perhaps not all entirely by him, his personal brush is more or less evident only on the two front panels). But the shrine is now included in almost all the catalogues of his works.

There is a popular “urban legend” associated with the hospital that says that Hans Memling himself was once its patient, being wounded at the Battle of Nancy where he fought on the side of the Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. And that as a sign of his gratitude Memling created many paintings for the hospital, pro bono even. Small issue is the roots of this legend can be tracked only to the 19th century, when it was most likely created. But never mind, it becomes more and more grounded with every touristic season in the city.

But back to the mirrors.  This is the one we see in the Nieuwenhove Diptych:

Here I may also note that its design strongly resembles the one of ‘Chicago mirror’, and there is a chance that we see the very same mirror.

In the ‘Brugge Mirror’ we see in the reflection roughly what we would expect to see there – that is, the back of Mary (but not the child) and a young man in profile (appropriate sitting to the right side of the Looking-Glass Mary, but to the left one of this-worldly Mary).

But in the reflection of the ‘third’ Memling’s mirror we see no young man:

At first I thought that this could be an attempt of self-portrait, and that Memling painted himself into the scene with the Saint Mary (thus becoming St. Luke, of a kind). But this idea was very quickly abandoned, since optically speaking these two people have to be behind Mary, who in fact hinds them from us in the picture.

This is how De Vis himself describes these two unknown creatures:

“[The mirror] reveals the heads of two children, a girl with a yellowish bonnet and a smaller little boy (?) with a red cap. They are looking at us – or the painter. Where are they actually positioned? They are illuminated by the window, while the red cloak of the Virgin can just be seen on the far right, behind the girl, which means, oddly enough, that they must be situated behind her. We can not see them, but they look at us through the mirror.”

The last remark is really very interesting. If it is the case, we see an entirely new way of placing a mirror in the picture – not only to show us something invisible, hidden from us but still present in the imaginary space of the picture, but also in such a way that this “something” (or “somebody”) could looked at us! To my knowledge, this is a very original technique, I do not remember seeing it before (and not so frequent after, either).

We know nothing, neither about these kids, nor about the patron himself, which is a pity – but also an opening of a possible intriguing story.

Because of the problems with the dating, I can say what composition was original, the one of Chicago or Brugge. In the latter case what we see is basically a corner of the room – there is only one side wall, and onen wall in the background (both with windows.)

In the former case, of Chicago, we see only one window, on the background wall (but it’s distributed between two panels), but we also see two side walls of the room, both the left and right ones. In fact, this was a very common way of creating – but triptychs, not diptychs. I remember being quite surprised with the exalted remarks on how ‘original’  and even ‘paradoxic’ was the composition of the Nieuwenhove Diptych. I later found that it was a fairly typical way of depicting the space, mostly driven by the physical structure of many paintings, namely, by the one-panel-two-wings composition of a triptych. I wrote ‘wings’,though in reality they worked like doors, that could be opened and closed, and thus naturally created a certain room-like space inside.

Memling himself has a few works were he exploits this possibility. Here, of example, his famous Donne Triptych (1478). I’ve seen it in the National Gallery in London, but was not allowed to take any picture there, so I use what’s available online:

This flat picture is also how the triptych is displayed in the museum, but in real life the triptych was most likely standing on an altar, and most likely looked like that:

Knowing this ‘usage’, Memling also made appropriate changes of the floor patterns, and of the work of light in the painting. Notice that the window in the background is distributed along all the three panels. Both side panels show the corner of the imaginary room.

One small interesting detail of this particular work is that Memling apparently inserted himself in the painting – we see him semi-hidden behind the pillar on the left wing.

The practice was fairly new in 15th century, but became more popular in the next hundred years, when almost every painter tried to make similar cameos. It is because of his red hat I initially assumed that he did the same in case of the Chicago diptych too.

The triptych also illustrates another very important dimension of the Memling’s works somewhat related to the mirrors. Even if not depicting the actual ‘mirrors’, these large and complex works often contain mirror-like reflections, embedded into various objects.

This is, for instance, we see how a handle of this sword held by St. Catherine contain the picture of a small town:

Most likely, similarly complex reflection was also in the goblet of Saint. John (both on the walls and the base:

Every time I see such non-mirrors with reflections, I have to hold myself a bit. If I will start analysing all the reflective surfaces, it may lead me too far from my central theme. On the other hand, I can not completely ignore all these micro-mirrors, too.

If we would go back the Chicago diptych, we can notice an interesting vase with red irises (?) standing behind the patron:

The reflection in its curved wall may also show something interesting; so far I can recognize only a window, but it can as well reflect the very kids we see in the mirror, and the mirror itself!

Evidently, Memling was using this trick, of embedded mirrors, from the very early works. Here is his Last Judgement (1467) where Saint Michael looks like one walking mirror:

Here is a close-up of his armor:

We see similar approach in his later work, so called Diptych with Madonna and Singing Angels, with Saint George and Patron:

Saint George here also looks like a Mirror Man, reflecting not only the surrounding landscape but also Madonna and her Heavenly Court:

An interesting detail is that in this case his armor also reflects himself, at least some elements of his weaponry, such as his sword, and his hand with a spear

And then of course the World Spheres !

I briefly mentioned one such sphere by Memling, it appears on his famous poliptych with skulls and skeletons (and one actual mirror). Here we see another striking example of such World-Mirror:

It looks that Memling knew about mirrors much more that I originally thought.

The last remark I want to make is perhaps redundant, and very familiar to all regular readers of this blog, but I feel I need to make it anyway, even of briefly. Every time when I write ‘mirror’ in this story, and especially if it’s done in the context of Saint Mary, it should be read as ‘so called mirror’ (because in reality it was not really a ‘mirror’).  I elaborate on this issue quite extensively here, and there are plenty further references in that post to further reading on the matter.


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