No Comment, Quotation — January 3, 2009, 8:58 am

Cusanus and Van Eyck: The Eye Behind the Mirror

van-eyck-arnolfini

Beryllus lapis est lucidus, albus et transparens. Cui datur forma concava pariter et convexa, et per ipsum, videns attingit prius invisible. Intellectualibus oculis si intellectualis beryllus, qui formam habeat maximam pariter et minimam, adaptur, per eius medium attingitus indivisibile omnium principum.

The beryl is a brilliant, white and transparent stone. It is possessed simultaneously of a concave and a convex form, and whoever attempts to peer through it comes across things hitherto invisible. If we measure a beryl to reason and fix the gaze of eyes of reason upon it, we perceive the greatest and the smallest forms at once and are thus affected by the recognition of the inseparable origins of the all.

–Niclas Krebs, later Cardinal Nicholas of Kues, De beryllo, cap. ii (1458) in Nikolaus von Kues’ philosophisch-theologische Werke in deutscher und lateinischer Sprache, vol. 3, p. 4 (S.H. transl.)

van-eyck-arnolfini-detail

Scientia brevissima est, says the master, quæ sine omni scriptura melius communicaretur, si essent petentes atque dispositi. True wisdom requires few words, and indeed would best be imparted entirely without writing, when the time arrives that people have the capacity so to consume it. Jan van Eyck conveys his message without words. That his message includes wisdom goes without saying. But it is an irony of our day that critical aspects of his message go unnoticed, forgotten, misremembered. Today science has brought us wealth and creature comforts, it gives us a life beyond the harsh struggle for subsistence. Leisure is a common attainment of humankind. But are we truly wiser than our forebears? Certainly the day that Cusanus imagines, when the human species advances to a form of communication in images, beyond speech and writing, has not yet reached us–though through the attainments of science, it may in fact be drawing near.

The double portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini, the wealthy merchant of Lucca, who ended his days a knight in the service of Philip the Good of Burgundy, and his wife, Jeanne Cenami, is the stuff of undergraduate art history examinations. Is this a painting to mark their wedding? But where is the priest? Is Jeanne pregnant or merely wearing a fashionable gown? Why is there a single lit candle in the chandelier, and that by broad daylight? (Erwin Panofsky, teaching that the Arnolfini double portrait stands at the threshold between secular and sacred art, answers all those questions in volume one of Early Netherlandish Paintings–though later scholars have disputed some of his conclusions). But I want to focus on one simple feature of this painting, easily overlooked, though essential to its meaning: the bull’s-eye mirror.

The Arnolfini double portrait is marked by firm geometrical principles, and the mirror is found between the portrait subjects, at the painting’s vanishing point. A gilded frame features ten rosettes, each with a carved scene from the passion of Christ, and immediately to the left are two sets of rosary beads, reminding us of the devotional purpose of these images. The Arnolfinis are a pious couple, it tells us. They launch their new life together conscious of the teachings of Christ at Cana. But what about that mirror? Can it not symbolize wealth, vanity, frivolity? Not this mirror. It is a speculum sine macula, a mirror without a blemish (from Wisdom 7:26, taken by Christians later as an emblem of Marian devotion). In the convex eye of the mirror, the oculus dei, the dimensions of the portrait are exploded. We see the space before the Arnolfini couple; the door has opened and the painter, Jan van Eyck, has entered, arrayed in a blue robe and wearing a turban configured much in the manner like one of van Eyck’s famous self-portraits. What an act of whimsy or humor for him to write, just above his own portrait in miniature, on the wall, the line associated with generations of Kilroys: Johannes de Eyck fuit hic — Jan van Eyck was here. He is accompanied by another unidentified figure. And we see other details of the room, as well as the backs of the portrait figures. What is the purpose of this detail, so meticulously rendered? The room’s details seem modest to the current viewer, but for their times they signal wealth and power, much as Arnolfini’s luxurious dark purple fur-trimmed robes do; key signals tell us that the owner is a religious man. The mirror allows the painter to give us a three-dimensional sense, an additional depth perception beyond that furnished by the carefully studied and executed perspective. But I suspect that for van Eyck there is still another, deeper meaning associated with that lens. The explanation comes, as in so many of the van Eyck paintings, from his rough contemporary, Cusanus.

In his scientific-theological tractate De beryllo (On the Beryl), Cusanus leads with a discussion of the properties of crystals naturally occuring in nature, and then he comes to a discussion of the special properties of the convex and concave forms and their theological significance. They permit the viewer who knows how to apply them to gain special insights, to plow into the secrets of the tiniest forms and the mysteries of the cosmos above and about us. Homo est mensura rerum, he writes–the human is the measure of all things; measure, and measurer. And the beryl (i.e., not a gemstone, but a specially crafted lens), is a means to measure and appreciate what is beneath and above, but also that which is inside the individual. Attente considera per beryllum ad indivisible pertingi–by means of the beryl you may yet achieve the indivisible. He means this in a scientific sense, namely that we will be able to perceive things which human eyes cannot see; but more significantly, he points to a thread which connects all things and which reflects a great design in the world of our immediate perception, just as it does in the subatomic worlds and in the cosmos. Finally, he focuses on the properties of the mirror and the need for human introspection: study well what is above and below you, but do not forget to come to an understanding of yourself.

Look into van Eyck’s mirror, and you may yet see all the things that Cusanus suggests may be seen and understood. It points to a universe within to match the one outside us. Which explains why it must be set at the vanishing point, with the artist’s own image set at the center.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Tons of invasive carp that the Australian government plans to eradicate by giving them herpes:

1,137,000

Contact lenses change the microbiome of the eye such that it resembles skin.

A reporter asked Trump about a lunch the president was said to have shared the previous day with his secretary of state, Trump said the reporter was “behind the times” and that the lunch had occurred the previous week, and the White House confirmed that the lunch had in fact occurred the previous day.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today