Saints in Sunglasses

What was going on in Antwerp workshops in the late 15th century?

Well, as we wait for to actually show that there’s a "European Professor" that said the things they said he said, let’s take a detour into the origin of sunglasses.  No, really.

What led me down this path was a recent trip to Luebeck, Germany, which I’ll tell everyone about a little later (including my shock-and-awe assault on the German language, carried out in full view of Antwerp_st_marys_altar_1hundreds of German professors). 

While there, I visited the Church of St. Mary’s, which boasts this astounding altarpiece, crafted in Antwerp in the late 15th century (see inset).  A lovely piece of work depicting various stations in the life of Mary, including the display of the infant Jesus in the temple (lower left) and the young Jesus disputing with the scholars in temple (lower right).  But look closer.

Look carefully at the center panel, which displays the death of the Virgin.  There are two apostles in front of her bed.  Detail_of_altarThe one on the left is wearing sunglasses.  They weren’t stuck on there by a passing school group, they’re original.  I immediately thought of that other famous early Renaissance wearer of sunglasses.  Come on, you know who I’m talking about.  It’s on the tip of your tongue.  I refer, of course, to the Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem, composer of weird, sinuous Masses.  He was court composer to three French kings, and died in 1497.  Here you see him on the right, wearing flowing black robes and ink-black, wrap-around shades.  Apparently nobody knows why he wore them.

Why on earth would a craftsman in Antwerp in the late 15th century portray an apostle wearing sungasses?  When were sunglasses invented?  How were they made back then?  Were they worn for the same reasons we wear them now?  Did they send the same message they do now? 

In short, what is their social significance?  If we can have our most talented minds studying oh, I don’t know, Barbie, why can’t we find an answer to this question?

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