The Mirror of the Book of the City of Ladies

To chose the first ‘mirror in art’, the very first one to start this blog from, was not an easy task (especially having in mind that my collection has grown to almost 5,000 artworks by now).

I decided to kick off with what I believe is one of the earliest depiction of a mirror in the modern European (art) history. It is not, perhaps, THE very first one (if such one is possible to identify with any certainty at all), but it’s definitely one of the earliest  mirrors we can find in the manuscripts of that time (often vaguely called the Early Renaissance).

And what an interesting mirror it is! The illustration above is from the famous book called The Book of the City of Ladies, by French writer-ess Christine de Pizan.  To tell the story of the mirror, I have to tell a little bit about the book itself, its author, and about the time, place and some people around.

This particular version of the book is usually dated at around 1405, but there is a chance (albeit, small) that some editions had been produced even earlier, which would make this ‘mirror’ one of the very, very few mirrors painted already in the 13th century. But not only its age makes this mirrors interesting.

Despite her hinting surname, Christine de Pizan was not in fact Pisa. She was born in Venice around 1364 (some sources say 1366), in a wealthy, high-profile family; her father was an alchemist and astrologist on the palace the Venetian doge before he was summoned to Paris, to the court of Charles V the Wise, the kind of France, They came to Paris around 1370, and Christine had be only a very young girl by then.

In the context of this story it is perhaps worth mentioning that Venice is believed to a motherland of modern glass mirrors. Initially a byproduct of glass-making, mirrors quickly became one of the most valuable industry of the Venetian republic.

Christine should have to be familiar with mirrors, and most likely had one – or even a few – in her possession (this was not the case for the majority of people by then, including the noblemen (and noblewomen); glass mirrors were still a rarity, and very expensive one.

I’d like to skip here a lengthy biography of Christine, but would highly recommend to read about her difficult, tragic even, yet wonderful and unique life (even if at a  wikipedia level).

When in Paris, she obtain excellent education and was introduced to the royal court, one of the most enlightened of that period. At the age of 15 she was married to the royal secretary, some Etienne du Castel.  Unfortunately, Charles V died in 1380, when Christine was just about 25 years old. Soon both her father and her husband fell out of favor of the new king, and in fact both died, one shortly after another.

Christine was left with two kids and a few more relatived dependent on her, rather  complicated financial matters and a general lack of patronage and protection. Yet she decided to follow a pretty unique – and very brave – ‘career path’, how we would call it today; she became a professional writer, pretty much unheard a choice for a women of that time.

She started with ballads and poems, initially translations and then her own; she also made a few commissioned books (e.g., a biography of the Duke of Burgundy’s brother who suddenly died).  The Book of the City of Ladies was her second ‘large’ texts, believed to be completed around 1405, when she was about forty; it became, and remains to be the most successul book she wrote.

The actual sizeof the mirror depicted in this illustration is very small, about 2cm; I am not sure they even put the efforts to draw a reflection there (but I’d love to check this if I would have a chance to see and explore the original).

Such a small size becomes clear if we understand that the entire miniature was itself quite small, about 12×18 cm, and itself only a part of a folio page.

The left part of the illustration shows the moment when Christine was visited in her study by the three Ladies (or Virtues, or Queens) – the Reason, the Rectitude, and the Justice. It is Lady Reason who holds the mirror, here symbolizing her rational, prudent mind, and (reflective) intelligence in general.

I think it wouldn’t be right to assume that the mirror here is a symbol of ‘femininity’ (equal or related to ‘vanity’ or ‘sinfulness’ in general). These motifs will indeed appear in the depictions of mirrors, but only later.

The very book written by Christine de Pizan is a manifesto against such despising, yet wide-spread views about woman at that time, and Christine, who personally supervised the making of the book, would unlikely allow such an interpretation to manifest in the book. The mirror here can be better seen as an assisting device, a scientific instrument of some sort, that helps women to think better.

There are a few later editions of this book that use similar illustration; produced a bit later (circa 1420), they are better drown and colored, but the depiction of the mirror remains virtually the same.

This scene, of Christine visited by the three Ladies,  was later reproduced in many editions of the book. Unfortunately, I don’t have the dates of publications and the exact sources of these two editions yet. Judging by the costumes, they had to be produced later in the 15th century, around 1460 or later.

Notice that in both cases Christine is actually sleeping; in the text of the book she describes this incident like a day-dream. In this context the mirror hold by the Lady Reason can be also understood as a tool to awake consciousness.

I would like to finish this posting with yet another miniature related to Christine Pisan. This time it is Christine herself in her study, the subject that became very popular following the popularity of her books. Again, I don’t know the manuscript and the date of its publication, but the type of hat she wears allows to attribute it to c.1450-1470.  Here we see another mirror, a small convex glass mirror mounted on a stand.

Traditional interpretations explain the presence of the mirror as a symbol of Christine’s femininity (and indeed, we don’t see such mirrors on many other portraits of the ‘male writers’ in their studies).  I believe that in the context of Christine’s ideas and her oeuvre such interpretations should at least be complemented with the reading of this mirror as a ‘thinking device’, an instrument for reflection and cognition, and in general a symbol of reason.

To sum up, and to specifically comment in this depiction of a mirror, we see here a pretty basic strategy: the mirrors are painted as the signifiers of [something else- whether it’s reason, or feminity, etc], but not as the tools with specific qualities, i.e., the surfaces able to reflect the light. The pictures of these mirrors are not enhanced or supported in any way with these unique qualities of the mirrors. In fact, we have to know beforehand that what is pictured is a mirror, and without such knowledge we can easily perceive them as something else,  for example, a plate or a disc.

I therefore describe it as an Art Mirror Strategy 0 (Zero Mirror).

List of Other Art Mirror Postings


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