Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Full painting.

  • Title: A Goldsmith in His Shop
  • Creator: Petrus Christus, painter
  • Description:

    This painting, also referred to as The Portrait of Saint Eligius and Donors, is generally believed to be a genre painting of the goldsmith’s trade with such wares on display as brooches, rings and liturgical vessels. A betrothed, aristocratic couple stand together on the left, and they represent the wealthy people who would have sought the services of a goldsmith. However, their features are extremely generalized, which suggests that they are not representations of actual people. The lady gestures with her hand at the scale weighing gold rings that is held by the seated man. This man is sometimes identified as Saint Eligius, a seventh-century goldsmith and bishop of Noyon, who became the patron saint of goldsmiths, blacksmiths, other metal workers, and those in equestrian trades. Traditionally, this painting has been read as an allegorical commentary on the sacred rituals of matrimony. This idea is underlined by the woman’s sash on the counter, which was used in betrothal ceremonies and symbolized the couple’s hoped for children.

    However, one aspect of this painting that has been largely unexamined in the majority of scholarship is the image of the two falconers reflected in the mirror on the far right side of Saint Eligius’s worktable. The mirror serves to expand the space of the painting and shows the street outside the shop. It recalls the convex looking glasses that were used as security devises by shopkeepers. However, the mirror also has a symbolic function. The cracks and water-spots marring its surface suggest that the painter is criticizing the couple reflected in it. Scholars generally accept the idea that the men reflected in the mirror are conceptually linked to the betrothed couple. They agree that these two pairs were designed in opposition and that the men in the mirror represent a negative model for the ideal bridal couple.

    Diane Wolfthal identifies these men as homosexual lovers. Her interpretation hinges on the meaning of the falcon and its use in hunting, which historically has served as a metaphor for pursuits of a sexual nature. Michael Camille suggests that falcons became signs of love through their association with the aristocracy, and because of the way that a falcon was trained, with the handler eventually forging an intimate relationship with the bird, which he treated with great sensitivity and patience much like the ideal lover. Images of the falconer, shown with or without a companion, are often constructed as analogous and interchangeable with depictions of lovers. For example, a fifteenth-century Flemish casket at the British Museum shows two comparable motifs: a falconer and his lady on the left, and a couple embracing on the right. Thus, the image of the two men in the mirror is consistent with other representations of the falcon. Here, the falcon functions to signify the erotic nature of the male couple’s relationship, but it does so in a coded way without explicitly depicting their sexuality.

    One work that is particularly relevant to the discussion of the falconer couple in the mirror is Michelangelo’s Holy Family. This painting depicts the holy family in the foreground and several smaller nude youths in the background. The youths stand between each other’s legs and pull at one another’s clothing, which is suggestive of homoerotic activity or sodomy. Thus the nudes represent the sin of sodomy in contradiction to the purity of the holy family. This comparison can be applied to the falconers and the engaged couple in the painting by Petrus. By rendering the falconers as small, marginalized, in the public street, and captured within a cracked and spotted mirror, Christus negatively constructs same-sex desire as something sinful and depicts it as the antithesis of good and holy marriage.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Falcons Goldsmiths Homosexuality Marriage Metalwork Mirrors Morality Sodomy Weights and Measures
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1449
  • Related Work: Closeup of coral and jewelry on display in the goldsmith's shop (from flickr): https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7153/6467649503_4846b5a564_b.jpg;
    Talbot Casket: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=20427&objectid=49139;
    Holy Family by Michelangelo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7c/Michelangelo-_Tondo_Doni_-_tone_corrected.jpg/765px-Michelangelo-_Tondo_Doni_-_tone_corrected.jpg
  • Current Location: New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.1.110
  • Original Location: Bruges
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Oil
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 98/85.2 /
  • Inscription: m petr[vs] xpi me· ·fecit·ao 1449 (Master Petrus Christus made me in the year 1449). The inscription is followed by the artist's mark,a heart-shaped emblem.
  • Related Resources: Bauman, Guy. Early Flemish Portraits, 1425-1526. Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Spring 1986): 10-11;
    Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire. Laurence King Publishing, 1998. Pp. 78, 94-99, 104;
    Wolfthal, Diane. "Picturing Same-Sex Desire: The Falconer and His Lover in Images by Petrus Christus and the Housebook Master." In Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Text and Image. Edited by Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. 17-46.