Mirror spheres, or Adventures of the Globus cruciger in Flanders

At a first glance the picture above may seem to be a reflection in one of the medieval convex mirrors (the ones that had been shown aplenty in this blog). It depicts very recognisable features of a medieval town on a background and has very characteristic distortions of perspectives that together seem to hint at the yet another mirror in art by some Flemish master.

The ‘Flemishness’ of this pictures would be a correct guess, as well as its ‘convexness’. But to explain why it is not quite a mirror I had to write yet another endless post, with 60+ pictures and many, many words (expect tl;dr). You are warned.

A short preface.

In some way this posting belongs to the series of my ‘post-Facebook’ posts that I have started last year. As I wrote, I have discovered a community on FB fixated on the Flemish artworks. I eagerly re-posted there many of the Flemish ‘art_mirrors’ that I collected earlier and shared in this blog. At some point I also began to post the new artworks there, ‘new’ in a sense that they were not yet described or mentioned here (i.e., they would be ‘new’ to the readers of this blog, but not to me).

Eventually I had to  write a series of ‘catch-ups’, the follow-ups of some of my earlier posts where I described these ‘new’ artworks. For instance, I wrote a follow-up to the Annunciation ‘Mirrors’, and the ones about Susanna and the Elders and the Pilat’s Trial.

It just happened that I also started to share in this Facebook community the mirror works that I never wrote here, and not only the works, but entirely new themes. Time has come to re-share these new artworks and new themes here, too.

The detail that I have shown above is taken from this work:

This is a rather large panel, almost 50 x 70 cm, created around 1520s.  Its author remains unknown, but it is currently attributed to the so called Master of the Mansi Magdalen who worked in Antwerp in the very end of the 15th – beginning of the 16th centuries. According to some source, he was a pupil of Quentin Matsys (or Matsijs) (mainly known in this blog as the master behind the Mirror of Moneylender.)

This is a very bright and luxuriant panel, with a lot of interesting details. Yet it is also a fairly puzzling work, at least for your ‘average public’. For instance, it quickly gathered a record number of ‘likes’ on Facebook but also a large number of questions about its content.

In short, the ‘content’ of this panel could be described as the depiction of Christ as the Salvator Mundi, or the Saviour of the World. And basically the whole post will be about this very motif, and the use these ‘glass balls’ in it (although I will have to delve into a number of very different stories, too).

I will write extensively about these ‘orbs’, and and will show a few more works of this master in this context, too. But before I forgot, I would like to show one more detail of this panel that also depicts some reflections. This detail shows a very decorative clasp, or a medallion, on the Christ’s chest:

Its central stone, or a bead, looks like a miniature convex mirror, with a reflection of the light beams in its surface appropriately resembling a cross.  I habitually gather such examples of the ‘jewellery mirrors’, though I never managed to write a proper overview of these ‘mini-mirrors’. In the next life, perhaps.

Back to the orb.

I wrote ‘also depicts a reflection’ when describing this bead, however, this description may not be very applicable to the orb itself. I will show this glass orb one more time, below, now in a large context of this panel:

It looks like a convex mirror but it is not quite it. The closest analogue that comes to mind is those souvenir ‘snow globes‘ that show miniature scenes of various kinds inside their glass balls, often with an effect of the ‘falling snow’ when shaken.  With snow or without, this orb does not seem to reflect but rather presents, displays the world inside it, somewhat similar to an old TV set.

This topic, of the ‘mirrors reflecting’ vs ‘mirrors displaying’ something, is a big one, and it would deserve a special post or a few (and I won’t be dealing with in in this post.)  Just for the record, I’ve touched this topic recently when talking about the mirror crystals of the Narcissus Fountain from the Roman de la Rose, and before that I also briefly wrote about the mirror-visors in the Pilgrimage of the Soul, by Guillaume de Deguileville. But to explore this topic seriously, I would need to spend more time (and write more texts) about the different ideas about optics as well as about human (visual) perceptions they held in the (post) Medieval times, and so I need park it for a moment.

Speaking specifically about these orbs, I actually also showed one of them already, when writing about (the absence of) mirrors of Leonardo da Vinci.  Back then I wrote about one specific work that has resurfaced recently and been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (though I have to add that this attribution is widely contested).

This is the panel of Christ the Salvator:

This is a stunning, crystal clear (sic!) example of such a ‘glass orb’. It beautifully represents the very glass nature of this globe, including the ‘air bubbles’ captured inside during the process of blowing it (notice though that there is no cross on the top of this orb). Whether this particular orb was depicted by Leonardo himself or somebody else in his times (or somebody else in different times) is a whole different question.

However, back then I didn’t have many more examples of such ‘glass orbs’ to further elaborate on their meaning in this specific context. I do have them now, perhaps one too many.

To start this story, I will have to tell a bit more about this orb/globe itself, and then about its use in Christianity, and only then return to the Flemish Primitivists, hopefully a bit better equipped (and warned you about tl’dr already).

On the Ball

The official name of this orb is Globus crucigerIt sounds solidly academic, as every other Latin word does, but literally means not much more than ‘a ball, or a sphere with a cross’; a cross-bearing orb. However, the meaning of this object is as far from pure academic concept as possible, as it has been long associated with the highest and very practical powers.

There is a large number of artefacts that this story can start from. I decided to show one of the most famous orbs of all times, the so called Orb of the Holy Roman Empire, or the Imperial Orb (itself a part of the large set of Imperial Regalia, or Imperial Insignia.)

Here how this orb looks like itself, and the right picture also shows it together with the Imperial Sword, to provide a scale:

In essence, it is indeed an orb, or a sphere, made out of gold and richly inlaid with various precious stones. I don’t know its exact weight, to my knowledge, it is hollow inside. Currently the orb is stored in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

Interestingly, but in German this object is called Reichsapfel, literally Imperial Apple, and this metaphor also went into few other European languages (Russian including).

This very orb lately became an epitome, a default formfactor for many similar symbols of royal power in Europe. In some sense, it became a mythologem, a core, universal – and timeless – part of the legendary story.  For example, Karl the Great (aka Carolus Magnus, Karl der GroßeCharlemagne etc), the very founder of this Empire, was lately depicted apparently with this very orb:

The first picture is the portrait of the Karl the Great by Albrecht Dürer, made around 1510.  The second is a much later drawing, made in France in the middle of the 18th century. But in both cases, especially in the first one, Karl seemingly holds this very orb, despite the fact that the orb was made only in the end of 12th century, four hundred years after his death.

Very likely that this very orb was made for the Holy Roman Emperor known as Frederick Barbarossa who reigned from 1155 till 1190.

The left picture is his portrait with the sons Heinrich and Friedrich, from Historia Welforum, the famous manuscript produced at the end of the 12th century. The right one is his depiction as a crusader knight, from Historia Hierosolymitana (the first edition of which appeared in 1188).

In both cases we see Frederick Barbarossa holding an orb somewhat resembling the one from the the Hofburg Palace (but notice that in both cases the depicted orbs also have some blue colors, perhaps indications to the use of glass?)

According to the historical records, this orb was first used during the coronation of theFrederick’s son Heinrich, who became the emperor Henry IV in 1190. It is likely that the orb was commissioned by Frederick (for himself?) but used only by his son – and by many Holy Roman emperors after that.

However, the Imperial Orb were made much earlier than that, and we can also find much older depictions. In one of the manuscripts of the 11th century we see a scene of the consecration to the imperial throne of Henry III (a grand-grand-grandfather of Frederick Barbarossa). The consecration has occurred in the so called Stavelot monastery, on June 5, 1040 (see the left picture).

We could find even earlier depictions: the right picture shows another emperor, Otto III (who was in turn grand-grandfather of Henry III), shown with some sort of orb in his left hand. I have a certain suspicion that this image may be made much later, though. Otto III ruled from 996 till 1002, and I don’t recall any manuscripts of these times with such rich illuminations; the picture could be made much later, with some Byzantium stylisations.

Never mind.  We can safely assume that even Karl the Great, the very first Holy Roman Emperor, has already had an orb of some kind – perhaps, not as lavishly decorated as the one we’ve see in the museum now, but imperial enough.

It may sound as too obvious and self-evident, but perhaps it worth to say something very explicit about the meaning of these ‘orbs’. What are they, precisely? We can read that they were symbols, or attributes of the imperial (or monarchic) power, but what does it mean, exactly?

It what sense a ‘crown’ is an ‘attribute’ or a ‘symbol’ of a monarch? Can he be a king without a crown? Does a crown make him king? Will I become a king if a steal the crown and start wearing it? Do the answers to these, and many more similar questions have a-temporal nature or depend on the specific historic (and semiotic) context of a certain time?

Speaking about crowns, quite many of the European ones have the Globus cruciger atop (this one is the crown of Dutch kings).

– – –

If we skip this complicated discussion about symbolisms and attributions, and dig further into history, we will find out that such ‘orbs’ were seen (and used) as the symbols of power long before the start of the Holy Roman Empire. It is older even than the Roman Empires. In fact, we find similar symbols used already in Ancient Greece.

There is a famous sculpture of Zeus as the World Ruler, holding in his right hand a (world?) sphere with Nika, the Goddess of Victory, on its top.

We also find similar orbs in the depictions of many Roman emperors:

The left picture is of Octavianus Augustus, the founder of the Roman empire (there is no cross on his orb). The second one is a nice ivory relief depicting Flavius Honorius Augustus, one of the last Roman emperors. His Nika on the orb is nothing but a bitter irony: it was during his reign Rome was sacked for the first time (in 410.)

The last picture is an interesting one. It is a 5m tall statue now known as the Colossus of Barletta, named after the Italian town Barletta where it stands currently.  It is believed that originally it was a statue of one of the Roman emperors (although we don’t know which one, as the date of its creation ranges from the 4th to the 7th century). It was rediscovered, broken in pieces, around 1230s. Not surprisingly, the sculpture was  Christianized, and the Roman (!) emperor holds a cross in his right hand (although the orb itself doesn’t have the cross, yet).


We also find numerous examples of these orbs used by the rulers of (already Christian) Byzantium Empire:

The left coins were issued during the times of Constantin IV (668 till 685), and the right one is from the times of Constantin VI ‘Blind’ (780 till 797).

But the orbs were on coins long before the Roman Empire became Christian: below is the so called antoninianus, introduced by Caracalla in the beginning of the 3rd century. We see here the emperor in the crown with sun beams, likely a reference to the Sol Invictus, who also holds an orb (though without the cross).

The latest examples also shows that if we would like to dig even deeper, we will likely see these orbs used already in of Ancient Egypt.

The left figurine is, of course, a very recent piece, a kitsch figurine from a souvenir shop, and yet it captures all the symbols that we can as well find in the ‘real’ works of the old Egyptian masters (such as the fresco from the Temple of Nut in Abu Simbel on the right.) Nut, or Nwt was the goddess of sky, traditionally depicted with the sun disc in her hand (I wrote extensively about all these interconnected symbols, of the Sun, ankh/mirrors and of the power – see Mirrors’R’Suns, or Egyptian Reflections.)

Or we can delve into Persian/Mesopotamian history, with their god Marduk, who was depicted holding the Sun (or a disc/orb), and a scepter (a staff, or even a hoe/shovel as some researchers believe.)

Here I need to stop. I can obviously dig even deeper (Egyptian cults are never too bad to start with, but there are always Indian cults/religions if one wants to make the process endless). I guess, though, that the examples above collectively made their point.


From this point on, I will focus on the symbol of Globus cruciger in its Christian interpretation. As happens typically in these cases, this symbol kept evolving, picking up various themes and overtones on a way (and being piked up and used/abused by various actors over time).

Interestingly, but the very first orbs used in the Christian imagery were of not of the God but of its angles (or archangels). Below are the two pictures of Archangel Mikhail holding the Globus cruciger: the left is from an icon made circa 8th century, and the middle one is from an ivory panel made in Byzantium around the 10th century.

The right one depicts the scene that I am mainly after, the Christ as Salvator Mundi (or Christ Pantocrator, the God Almighty, the one who both creates and saves the world).

Notice that Christ doesn’t hold any orb; he holds a book! This is a very crucial issue. Indeed, Christ does not need any symbol of power, he is the Power. And if anything his power is in his words, in his speech, logos (or at least in his book).  He doesn’t need any ‘orb’, he came to save the word by the power of his discource, as we would say today,

This is indeed a very powerful metaphor (and it’s clear where it came to Christ). It would be so great if Christianity would follow the path; alas, the movement evolved along quite a different trajectory.   The intended ἐκκλησία was replaced by κυριακή, and the intangible yet omnipotent and divine word was substituted by the tangible, too tangible,  too earthly symbol (this very orb).

The first popes didn’t even hold it, they placed on their heads (similar to the orbs on crowns that I showed earlier). The left picture is of Pope Innocent III (1198-1212) who put a kind of orb on top of its tiara. The right one is of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), whose tiara (itself consisting of the three clowns) is also topped by a tiny Globus cruciger.


=Towards  the mirror glass orbs

Whether it’s correct or not from the ‘True Christianity’ point of view, but at some point the image of Christ became associated with this Globus cruciger. It is very tempting to see it as a regression, a descend from the initial ‘true knowledge’ into an abyss of corrupted misinterpretations (I am afraid though that it would be too simplistic a take).

Nevertheless, the earlier examples of this scene, both in Byzantium and later in European art portray Christ without any orb. Take, for example, the Salvator Mundi by Giovanni Bellini, around 1465:

We see no orb of power in the panel by another Italian master, Antonello da Messina, also made around 1465:

However, as we go further ‘up’ in history, we start spotting the insignia. Initially it looks like a golden sphere – see, for instance, the version by Carlo Crivelli made around 1470. originally it was a part of a larger altarpiece that was eventually split into parts (this one is currently in Mexico (!)

Here is another interesting example, by Gherardo Starnina, around the 1400s (this example refutes the simplistic theory of the ‘losses of true meaning’ happening over time). Here Christ holds not just an orb, but a world globe, or at least a globe with a map of the world drawn according to Ptolemy. Later we will see the examples when the orb would be literally made in a form of the Earth Globe:  Christ saves the world, so let him hold the whole world.

This latter case triggers a complex swirl of ideas. The issue is that by 1400 people didn’t know about the sphericity of Earth (or at least it wasn’t a part of the officially approved worldview). The Earth was thought to be a round, flat disc. I bet that the world as a whole, the total universe could well be imagine as a sphere, and so this orb would act as  a model of the whole world, not just planet Earth as we know it now.

This substitution is still remarkable, and it would be worth exploring where and how it happened, exactly. As I tried to present it earlier, the symbolism of the orb initially came from the Sun, and only at some point later it began to mean the world/Earth.

There is number of interesting cases when we see the orb but without a cross. Here is an example of a bronze relief made around 1500s by the so called Master of the Barbarigo Reliefs from Venice:


Below is the work that finally brings us closer to – if not mirrors than at least glass orbs.  The panel was created by Andrea Previtali, a pupil of Bellini, around 1519:

Here we see Christ holding the thing that looks exactly like a glass sphere, with a very accurate representation of glass (semi-)transparency and its reflective surface, with the spots of light on it (they can be even seen as the light beams coming through the orb).

We also see a somewhat similar glass orb in the hands of the Titian’s Salvator Mundi (1570):

Titian is already one of the most prolific makers of the ‘art-mirrors’, and now I am also discovering these glass spheres adding on top of his collections, great!

The last Italian work that I’d like to show is the painting by some anonymous Florentine (?) master who created this work circa 1560:

This is a beautiful painting, with an incredibly finessed embroidery on Christ’s gown. What makes it particularly interesting is its orb, this time representing not only the Earth but an entire solar system (as they understood it back then, of course, with the Sun rotating around Earth).

Notice also the efforts spent to depict a transparent yet also reflective quality of this glass sphere (especially at the bottom, where we see the reflections of four fingers).



And now, after all these preparations and preliminary notes, time to move to the Flemish Primitivists, where it all started. There will be a lot of (glass) orbs below, but similar to the Italian masters, I will also start with an orb-less Christ.

There are two very interesting works that depict Christ as Salvator Mundi, both by Hans Memling, one made around 1474 and another one a bit later, in 1481. In the Western European tradition such works are usually called Christ Giving His Blessing, but in fact this is truly the Salvators Mundi as it is supposed to be.

Interestingly, but Memling had a more ‘conventional’ orbs, too. Here is the central panel of his triptych known as Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels (c.1480s)

The ‘heatmap’ of this orb clearly shows the efforts to depict the light effects created by the glass spheres (e.g., fairly sharp reflection of the window frame in the upper half, yet a very diffused light spot on its bottom one).


Below is the panel of Memling’s Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (c.1485). I briefly wrote about its mirror here, though it wasn’t about this orb.


The next example is also of Christ with the orb: this is a central panel of the famous Braque Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden, created around 1452. Here we see a fairly standard orb, or Globus cruciger, only made out of metal (gold?) yet. Its polished surface shows the reflection of a window (?).

I didn’t have a chance to search in any of the large online archives of medieval manuscripts, so I found only one example of Christ holding an orb, from the Flemish manuscripts made around the 1460s and illuminated by Willem Vrelant (I bet there are many more of them).

An interesting feature here is that Christ is walking here ‘outdoor’, in a garden of some sort. Another interesting detail is that the orb is seemingly made of glass, though not very transparent.

Before I will show a collection of other beautiful (glass) orbs, I would like to remind a couple of things related to the history of glass (and mirror) making. They may look obvious for some people, and almost self-evident for those who reads this blog, but may sound new for the rest.

As we know [here should be a link to a good source], around the 15-16 centuries Flanders became one of the leading European centers of glass (and mirror) making. At some point the glassmakers from this area learned how to make very clear and transparent glass, and the glassblowers, in turn, learned how to blow large glass spheres out if it. I don’t want to say here that Flemish masters were the first or the only Europeans who learned the craft, of course not. Very likely, the masters from Venice where the first who mastered this technique (and we’ve seen the examples of the Italian ‘glass orbs’). And the Germans (or rather the Bavarians, from Nuremberg), remained to be the best glass makers, due to perfect sand they had, with high proportion of quartz (I will have to search for more ‘glass orbs’ depicted by the German masters).

These glass objects were beautiful, and expensive, and similar to the first glass convex mirrors were appropriated by the church for its purposes. They fit ideally into the concept of Globus cruciger, and at the same time, were adding some interesting qualities to this concept that I will try to show below.

Christ as Salvator Mundi in the painting by Gerard David (c.1485) holds a very simple glass ball, with some minimal reflections on its surface:

We can clearly see that this is a glass ball, not a metal one, because we see the reflected window frame on its rear surface. Again, the artist made special efforts to show the transparency of this glass sphere, and how the light beams go through it.

Few years later a pupil or a follower of Gerard David depicted Christ with a similar glass orb, but it already has an inner world inside it. A better copy would help us to see more of its features, but this is what I have so far.

There is also a very interesting clasp on the Christ’s gown, with a large gem or a bead in its center. Again, I guess that a better copy could help us to see of the painter ventured to depict a cameo self-portrait in it:

The next Salvator Mundi is from the workshop of Joos van Cleve (c.1530)

Again we see a certain world inside this orb; interestingly, but its level of the horizon is not tilted (despite the orb itself is):


Yet another panel from the same workshop of Joos van Cleve, Christ as Salvator Mundi c.1540. Yet another complex inner world inside the orb, but also a large and complex cross on top of it:


The next panel is attributed to the late Joos van Cleve himself:  Christ as Salvator Mundi (c. 1540)

Here we see not only a very complex world, with a landmass and a seam but even with ‘weather’ of some sort:

I don’t know if this dark top of the orb was an artistic intention or just the result of late restoration. Perhaps the ideas was to depict the night, as we see the moon crescent.

The next panel is by an anonymous master from Bruges(c.1530). Here the orb of Christ as Salvator Mundi has a large cross, and we clearly see the night scene:

This world has a town and even some ships (and I sense we could also see people, at least on the closest one):

I found more panels with similar depictions of Christ the Salvator, but the quality of the copies is not so good: the first one is attributed to Michiel Coxie the Elder, the second, to the workshop of Hans Memling, and the last one to an anonymous master from Antwerp.

The next Christ as Salvator Mundi that was made in the workshop of Joos van Cleve circa the 1530s.

Its orb is perhaps the most ‘glassy’ of them all, a large sphere made of transparen glass, and with the light beams reflected by both front and rear side of this orb.

The next panel is attributed to Quinten Metsys (or Messys) from Leuven – Christ as Salvator Mundi (c.1500)

Again, its inner world is depicted during the “inner night”

The next panel is one of the most decorative in this collection. It also assumingly belongs to the workshop of Quinten Metsys, and was made around the 1500s.

I am not sure if there is any ‘inner world’ in this orb. The ghostly silhouette of town could as well be a reflection of a real town, as if seen through a window. What we see reflected are only external objects – the clouds, or the hands of Christ (a very rare case, by the way, to see Christ reflected in a mirror). More specifically, it is his saving blessing which is reflected, that in a certain context could be interpreted as pure blasphemy.

I put these panels by Quinten Metsys at the end of my list partly because they are indeed made later, but also because the Master of the Mansi Magdalen, whose work started this posting, is considered to be a pupil of Metsys.

In addition to his marvellous work that I have shown, I found a couple of other works on the same subject. The one below is quite remarkable. It is called Christ the Salvator Mundi in Landscape (c.1520). There are only very few works with this motif, of Christ walking outdoor with his orb.

Notice that even in this case the reflection in this orb still shows an interior of a room, with a window (and maybe also with the artist’ easel somewhere):

I have a copy of another work attributed to this master(с. 1525), but the quality is not so good, so I can’t say much about its reflection.

I am sure there are many more works of Flemish masters with such orbs, and I will keep looking for them, but I need to to start wrapping up this posting.

A few more ‘follow-ups’ of a kind.  Strictly speaking, Fernando Gallego was a Spanish master, but similar to Juan de Flandes (I wrote about his ‘mirrors’ a few times) came to live and work Spain from Flanders. This is a giant panel by him called The Blessing Christ (1492)

Its orb is very stylized, almost abstract (especailly for the time of creation):


The next work was made later, almost a century later, in fact (c.1590). It is attributed to Antoon Claeissens, master from Bruges. Similar to the master from Florence I was writing about a bit earlier, its orb also has a depiction of a solar system:

Interestingly, but the depiction of the Solar system still follows the Ptolemean, geocentric model, despite the fact that Copernicus has made his discoveries nearly 50 years earlier (his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published in 1543, and he got his results even earlier).

I don’t know the authors of the next two panels: the first is considered not Flemish, but Italian, and the second – German, and both are dated by the middle of the 16th century. Both have their orbs made in form of a globe, reflecting the age of great geographic discoveries.

With time the image of Christ holding the Earth globe became widespread, and during the Baroque Period, from the middle of the 17the century on, it is nearly a default version.  At the same time we see gradual disappearance of the ‘glass orbs’ that became fairly exceptional.

I found only rather strange depictions, such as the version of the Child Chirst with the (Huge!) Orb, attributed to Anthony van Dyck (the left picture).  The right picture is a copy of the painting by the Dutch artist Cornelis Schut the Elder, made around 1640 г.



It is always difficult for me to ‘conclude’ such ‘conceptual’ postings. Its initial focus point was fairly compact, to understand a bit better the meaning of one interesting orb on one Flemish panel of the 15th century. As often happens, it took a rather lengthy excursion to the human history in the efforts to unpack the meaning of these ‘power balls’, and then a return back to the re-interpretation of this ‘power balls’ in (Christian) Europe.

As we’ve seen, the very material and design of these orbs added a number of interesting new features to this old symbol. For examples, they began to contain these ‘inner worlds’ that we, spectators, could see (in a funny way placing us in the same world-observing position the God is supposed to have).  I sense that there are more overtones that these glass orbs added to the initial idea, for examples, their ‘cleanness’ and ‘clarity’ (or may be a certain degree of ‘obscurity’, with a reference the ‘glass, darkly’.)

I didn’t find any of these orbs connected in any way to the Eye of Providence (which would seem to be only logical). This of course leads to the usual ending of such posts: more (re)search is to be done.

PS: I was actually planning to finish this posting here (though not the theme of the glass orbs itself, I have at least one important sequel to add).  But then I decided to add an important dimension, related to both the concept of the Globus cruciger in Christianity and to its depiction in religious art.

This is quite a complex issue, and I may easily blurp one or a few very foolish things, so treat the text below as the very first stub only. I will have to do much more research to say something solid.

The issue is that all the panels and paintings that I’ve shown earlier depict Christ, the Son of the God (Father). It is him who saves the world, according to these versions.

However, there are also versions that describe the events somewhat differently: it is God the Father who rules the world (the one who allegedly created it in a first place). It is him who sends his Son to save this world, but he still holds firmly the symbol of his power over it, the very orb.

For any person who is not very familiar with these theological nuances (that is, the majority of people) the differences between the two versions are barely comprehensible and hardly matter. For a devoted believer one could represent the Absolute Truth, and the other, the Terrible Heresy (and which is which may vary for different people.)

We know about very heated debates between the adherent of these different versions (and we likely don’t know the full picture, because the winners of the game usually end up with the extermination of the losers, often together with their arguments, i.e., the artworks). By the sheer number of these orbs in the hands of Christ we can assume that the first version took over (at least in the Flemish art of that time).

There are, however, a certain number of (remaining?) works showing the alternative reading (and depicting) of the matters.

I can start with one spectacular work that illustrates this conflict of interpretations, although rather ambiguously.

The Ghent Altarpiece by the brothers van Eyck (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, c.1430s) still fuels the debates about who is exactly depicted sitting on the throne, the God Father or the God Son.  As the name of the altarpiece suggests, the Son is supposed to be represented by the lamb (depicted on the lower panel), and so we are supposed to see the God Father on its upper panel.  This is wrong, argue the opponents, it is Christ too, only represented here in different form. It is him who both rules the world (the scepter in the left hand) and saves it (the blessing by the right).

I have a few more examples that are more straightforward.

I found the panel below in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Portugal:

It is attributed to an anonymous Flemish master and was created around the 1550s. The panel (likely the central part of a triptych) depicts Mary with the Child and his grandparents, St.Anna and St. Joachim (and a female donor). When in the museum, I was mainly interested in the mirror hanging on a wall (Mary’s symbol, Speculum sine macula).

Only later, already back home I spotted the God-Father in the heaven, holding in his hand a very prominent Globus cruciger. It may not looking like a glass one, but at least it has reflections on its surface.


There is another example, the Trinity by the Antwerp master Artus Wolffort created circa 1620 (there are also numerous version of this work created by his pupils).

Here we see both God the Father and his Son Christ, but it is the former who holds the orb.


The same distribution of power symbols occurs on the panel by German master Bartholomäus Bruyn (he worked in Cologne, but stylistically was close to the Flemish schools.) The panel depicts Coronation of the Virgin (с.1540):

Here we see an already familiar glass orb, but held by the Father God:

Here is the same scene, Marienkrönung, depicted by another German master, Hans von Kulmbach (c. 1520)

We may spot a certain ambiguity in the above panel. The orb is in the hands of the Father (it doesn’t have  cross, though), yet the tiara (another symbol of power, with a mini-orb on its top) is worn by his Son.

The next panel about Mary’s Coronation, by Michael Sittow shows how this orb is gradually changing hands:

The panel is dated by 1496. I would also add that Sittow is a master with a peculiar orgin: he was born in Ravel (now known as Tallinn, the capital of Estonia), but studied in Bruges, in the workshop of Hans Memling. His main works firmly belong to the Flemish schools, though by the end of his life he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he apparently worked together with Juan de Flandes.

I don’t know why I find most of these works with God the Father holding these orb painted by somewhat marginal artist (and I didn’t find see any of them made by more mainstream Flemish masters, yet.)  It’s easy to start believing in a conspiracy theory of a kind, that these works, even if they existed, had been destroyed or altered at some point in Flanders, and that only such ‘marginal’ works survived.


The last second addition. When writing this, I found another interesting work, by Italian Paolo Veronese.  The painting is called Christ arresting the Plague with Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian (c.1560s).

Which means that Christ saves the world already in a more pragmatic way, protecting it from the disease.

He also holds a GIANT orb, as if made out of plastic, not glass:


PPS: One more p.s. I have recently found another interesting painting, this time by a Dutch master Eglon van der Neer (1636-1703). The painting is called Allegory of Faith (or Allegory of Religion) (c.1693).

We see a woman holding a giant Globus cruciger, and not an empty one but showing the life of Christ, as if in a 3D TV set of some sort. Unfortunately, I have only a very poor reproduction of this artwork at the moment, and can’t see exactly the scenes depicted inside this globe.

The original of this work is now in a tiny museum in Amsterdam, called  Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder  (literally ‘Our Lord on Attick’). This is how the painting is presented on their website:

I should visit the museum one day soon, and then continue the story.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s