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 even possible to identify with any certainty), 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 picture above is an illustration (illumination) from the very famous book called The Book of the City of Ladies, by French writer-ess Christine de Pizan.  To tell the story of this 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 edition of the book is usually dated at around 1405. There is a small chance, however, that some editions had been made even earlier, in the very end of 14th century (which would make its ‘mirror’ one of the very, very few mirrors painted already in the 13th century). But it’s not only the age that makes this mirrors interesting.

Despite her hinting surname, Christine de Pizan was not from 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 at the palace of the Venetian doge before he was summoned to Paris, to the court of Charles V the Wise, the kind of France. He came to Paris around 1370, and Christine had to be a very young girl by then.

(In the context of this story it is perhaps worth mentioning that Venice is believed to be the motherland of modern glass mirrors. Initially a byproduct of glass-making, mirrors quickly became one of the most valued article that the city was producing, and Murano, the island of mirror-maker became one of the most cherished (and guarded) gems of the Venetian republic.)

Christine was likely familiar with mirrors from her childhood, and 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 rare, and very expensive items.

When in Paris and thanks to the position of her father, she obtained excellent education and was introduced to the royal court, one of the most enlightened one in Europe of that period. At the age of 15 she married some Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary.

Unfortunately, Charles V died in 1380, when Christine was just about sixteen or seventeen years old. Soon both her father and her husband fell out of favour of the new king, Charles VI (or rather out of favour of his uncles dukes who supervised the young monarch). Worth even, both in fact both died, one shortly after another.

Christine was left with two kids, her mother, a few relatives 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 decided to became a professional writer, pretty much an unheard 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 died quite suddenly).  The Book of the City of Ladies was her second ‘large’ text, believed to be completed around 1405, when she was about forty (but as I wrote earlier, some researchers suggest that the earlier versions were made around 1398). The book became a success, and remained to be the most famous book she wrote.

The majority of the latest editions of this book (including the Penguin Classics one) have this illumination on their covers, making this illumination a true blockbuster.

The book has a very interesting composition. All the events occur in Christina’s dream, where she meets the three Queens, or Ladies (or Virtues): the Reason, the Rectitude, and the Justice.  Together they decide to build a city, but a special one, ladies-only. The book is collection of mini-biographies of various famous women, from antiquity to more modern time, including famous women from the Bible and some saints.

Below is an entire leaf with this illumination:

Its left part shows the moment when Christine was visited in her study by the three Ladies, and on the right one the have started a construction of the city (it depicts some interesting details of brick-laying of the time).

It is the Lady Reason who holds the mirror on this illumination, symbolising her rational, prudent mind, and (reflective) intelligence in general.

The actual sizeof the mirror depicted in this illustration is very small, about 2cm (this is my own estimate, the folio page is about A4, and the miniature itself is about 12×18 cm.

I am not sure that the master 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).

I think it’s not correct to read this mirror as a symbol of ‘femininity’ (or even ‘vanity’ or ‘sinfulness’ in general), as some of the interpreters suggest.  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. 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, the one that helps women to think better, and be better (not just ‘nicer’).

I found a couple of other editions of this book with a very similar illustration:

Unfortunately, I can not find the dates of their making. Judging from the style, I would guess that they are produced earlier (the figures are less refined, and also on both we see a pattern on the background rather than blue sky).

This scene, of Christine visited by the three Ladies,  was later reproduced in many other editions of the book. Unfortunately, I don’t have the dates of publication and the exact sources of these two editions, either. Judging by the costumes, they had to be produced later in the 15th century, around 1420 or even 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 de Pizan. This time we see 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 – we actually do, as I found later).  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 (see here a later posting Mirrors of the ‘Make Cluster’).

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 femininity, etc., – but not as the tools with specific qualities, i.e., the surfaces able to reflect the light.

The depictions 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. 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, or the Symbol of Mirror).

MIRRORS IN ART: INVENTORY

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