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"The banker's mirror"

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"The "banker's mirror" (or, as it is also called, the "magic mirror") spread within European nobility circles in the 15th century. The creation of convex mirrors was linked to the great interest in optics, manifest at the beginning of the Renaissance period in Flanders. The spherical surface of these mirrors, first covered inside with tin, then with an amalgam of mercury and gold or bronze, not only brought more light to the room, but also allowed the whole room to be seen without having to turn or move. Of course, this characteristic of convex mirrors made them become by default "surveillance mirrors", being thus unintentional prototypes of modern video surveillance cameras. They were once located in places that needed to be monitored and guarded, such as expensive goods stores or banks. The name "banker's mirror" comes from there. Convex mirrors as attributes of power, supervision and control quickly spread in the circles of the rich aristocracy in order to survey their servants. The latter, due to their ignorance and naiveté, believed that with these "magic mirrors", the owners even continued to observe them in their absence.
Progressively, the superstitious notion of "magical mirror" disappeared and the capacity of these convex mirrors to maximize light in the rooms became well appreciated. These "banker mirrors" remained popular in France (and England) until the middle of the XXth C amongst nobility, following which they were slowly replaced by the simplified "sun mirrors". Our website offers "banker mirrors" from the mid 19th C and 20th C (units 4029 et 4031).
Art history shows the high status of "banker mirrors" as household antiques. Since the Renaissance period, these mirrors are represented in the most famous paintings of the Flemish School of Art and not only do they constitute a feature of the paintings but also carry a specific philosophical meaning.

The "banker mirror" for example is represented in painter Jan van Eyck's (1385 - 1441) most famous painting, "Portrait of the Arnolfini couple". Jan van Eyck was for Flanders what Leonardo da Vinci was for Italy. Indeed in this painting, and the first ever "twin painting", the sun mirror is by no means accidental. The painting, which belonged to Marguerite of Austria, Philippe II and Georges IV, shows a scene depicting wedding rites, where the husband, banker Arnolfini (his family owned banks in Florence and Bruges, where Jan van Eyck lived), pledges allegiance to his newlywed. In those days, a priest or witnesses were not required at a wedding. Anyone could swear an oath in front of a lit candle. This symbol of an omniscient Christ, a burning candle on a candlestick, is present in this painting. The couple is surrounded by customary household objects of the rich Flemish home, of which, just above their holding hands, a mirror, such a blessing, as if the eye of God is looking over them.

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Such a mirror, convex in itself, was a luxury object for the time (in the houses of the commoners, polished metal was usually the norm, and the technical possibility of making flat mirrors appeared later). Moreover, such a mirror with an expensive frame became a work of art in itself. miroir sorciere 4In Jan van Eyck's painting, the mirror in a lush frame with scenes from the Bible provides additional theological and moral meaning to the painting (in theological symbolism, the convex mirror is considered a "speculum sine macula" - "impeccable mirror, a mirror without defects", symbolizing simplicity and purity) and becomes a kind of silent witness and medium, sanctifying the rite, emphasizing the special spiritual meaning of the painting.

 

The presence of a "banker's mirror" in the painting of Jan Van Eyck's student, Petrus Dristus (1410 - 1475) is full of meaning also. "A goldsmith in his shop" depicts a couple in a goldsmith's workshop - Saint Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths - ordering their wedding ring. Upon the saint's table rests a convex mirror showing a two people outside of the frame of the real scene, giving a surreal dimension, such as this "magical mirror" playing the role of a prophetic mirror.

In Robert Campin's "the Werl Triptych", the convex round mirror also plays a particular role, making it possible to understand the artist's idea: the vision of John the Baptist with the Bible and the Lamb of God in his hands and a monk in prayer (donor of painting). This vision acquires the authenticity of reality by the fact that, just like the other objects of the material world - the room, the landscape, the figures of the monks - it is reflected in the "magic mirror". Thus, thanks to a single detail - the convex mirror - the existence of the physical and the metaphysical, the sensual and the supersensitive takes precedence over the basic reality of the painting.

 

  

 

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