Hem and Haw on Hell and Wow!

Total nakedness and a bumptious, almost haughty pose of the woman shown in this painting would be a bit too much even for many contemporary viewers. The woman resembles the wannabe models from the Vice magazine’s pages: salacious, almost obscene, a visual punch to your face.  The mirror in her hand only makes the sin sinner.

And if this girl is even today seen as one of the Helmut Newton’s über-erotic divas, how she should have been perceived at the end of the fifteen century, with its alleged puritanism and offishness? And who’s she, in the first place?

To start with, this is how the painting really looks like:

The story about this ‘art mirror’, from the painting by Hans Memling (1430-1494) may resemble the famous Powers of of Ten films (or the Russian matryoshka dolls for us, less sophisticated).

First you would see only a face in an oval frame:

We then see a hand holding this mirror tenderly:

But what starts as a nice hand-held mirror with a girly face, turns into a… bare-breast torso of the girl herself!

And then of course we see a full-standing body somewhere in a meadow.  Eve? Venus?  A Vanity? The latter is how this portrait is referred most often. It’s dated by 1485 (sometimes 1490); the master, Hans Memling, was about 60-65 years old when painting this work.

It looks similar to those large portraits of the tall, long-legged, Helmut Newton-like naked divas by Lucas Cranach the Elder. In fact, it is actually a very small work, about 13 x 20 cm. It may look as an idyllic scene, and of we follow the naming strategy employed in the cases of Bellini or Baldung,  we may end-up with something like “Naked girl in sandals with three dogs on a meadow near the river”.

The next zoom-out may force us to change the name a bit:

The name of this triptych is Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation.

But the ‘true version’ is even bigger, since each of the three oak panels is painted on both sides, which makes six pictures in total.

The complex double-sided triptych is currently on display in Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Strasbourg. We managed to visit the museum last year, and that’s how the triptych really looks:

And the opposite side (which shows, among other things, that the above placements of the panels, as show in the Wikipedia and many other pages on the web, is not very accurate; not only it turns The Skull and The Mouth of Hell, but it also swaps this panel with the one showing the Resurrected Man).  Although I am not sure that we know by now the exact order/placement of the panels, so this is really a minor remark).

Seen in this wider context, a few people would keep perceiving the panel as ‘a girl/Venus with the dogs on a meadow‘, but would agree that we see here a complex, and critical depiction, most likely of Vanity, a manifestation of sinful behavior with its deadly consequences.  The exact interpretation of the various elements on this panel (these very dogs, for example, or the flowers, the watermills etc) is the subject of the heated debates among art critics foe decades (and as such is outside of this blog’s scope of interests).

I would only elaborate here on the ‘watermill’ part, partly because the link is not exactly obvious, but also because we can see another reflection of this painting near the watermill, this time in water.

Back then watermills have been often seen as the places of illicit dating and sexual affairs of all sort, including plain prostitution. Not used during the winters, these remotely standing buildings have been often used as brothels, the practice officially condemned yet widely spread nevertheless (we see one such windmill in the Return of the Hunters by Pieter Bruegel. PS: I am corrected, it’s not a windmill, of course, but a watermill, and even specifically underdrift mill).

My first interpretations of this work in terms of ‘Art Mirror Strategy’ was fairly negative. I argued that by the end of 15th century we have already saw very sophisticated examples of ‘mirror work’ in in the works by Bellini, for example (his ‘inward cocoon’).

But then I realized that Bellini painted his Donna with Two Mirrors in 1515! And that other Flemish painters (Rogier van der Weyden, or van Eyck, or Campin) did all paint perhaps more sophisticated works in general, but their mirrors are all very static and show not interactivity.

I now see Memling’s take on mirrors as much more advanced, and may be comparable with the complex patterns of Bosch.

2 thoughts on “Hem and Haw on Hell and Wow!

    • You are lucky there in Vienna, having a marvellous collection of art-mirrors!

      Thank you for pointing to (yet another) inaccuracy, it is, of course, not a wind-mill, but a water-mill.

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