V + V = W/M, or Titian’s Otherworldly Mirror

I have deliberately picked up this copy of the Titian’s Woman with a Mirror to start this posting with; it’s far from the best quality, very dark and obscuring many details. But even if everything would be indeed so poor on this painting, it would nevertheless be a remarkable masterpiece, a unique and – in many senses – a pivotal art work in the history of (mirrors in) art.

To start with, this is the very first depiction of a mirror as a main hero in visual art in history. It is a first time when we see the mirror not just one of the elements of composition, or a part of the interior; no, the mirror here is the main object, and to some extent a ‘subject’ of this visual story, so to speak. Both quantitatively and qualitatively it occupies the dominant place in this work.

Let’s start with the fact that the mirror indeed occupies a large area on the canvas’ surface – even its ‘glass surface’ takes about 15% (more than the exposed décolleté of the girl), and together with the frame it takes nearly a quarter of the painting! Never before any mirror was so prominently displayed in a painting! And that is not even a whole mirror, the bottom part of the frame is cut, so we have imagine its totality.

The painting also suggests to create in our imagination many other things. Let’s have a look at the copy of a better quality:

The painting is now in the Alte Pinalothek in Munich, where it is called The Vanity of the World (an obviously very recent naming). Another common name is Profane Love (??). I argue that these names do not reflect (sic!) the very basic (pivotal) point of the work,  but simply are inaccurate. A few basic facts first.

Time-wise it is one of the early works by Titian, of about the same time as his Woman with a mirror; it is attributed to 1515. Since all of these dates are quite approximate, I  could also my stories about Titian’s mirrors with this one, and count it as “the first Titian mirror”.

We don’t know who was a client, or a patron of the painting, and what was the intended meaning, the content is usually described in a following way: “the artist  wanted to show us a pretty girl holding a large mirror, which reflects a somewhat randomly piled on the table coins, rings, beads, and other jewelry assortment, (including a purse(?)”.

Deeper in the mirror we also see a woman, but its that she is doing there. Neither the woman nor the coins, jewelry and other stuff are visible on the painting ‘itself’, that is, in the ‘real world’ of this painting – we only see them through the looking glass.

This kind of depiction, through a mirror, was not a very novel approach – we say already in the Arnolfini portrait and in the Christus’ Goldsmiths, both made almost a century earlier. We also saw similar composition used by Quentin Metsys, in the Banker and his Wife – the latter work was created in 1514, basically, at the very time when Titan was creating his work. I do not think, hopwever, that the authors were aware of each other back then (as a side remarks, this also show how much more advanced was a mirror-making craft in Venice, compared to the rest of the Europe: Metsys still depicts a small convex mirror, while Titian saw (and most likely had in his possession) a larger, and much more flat a mirror; the size of the artifact is in fact one of the major things this work shows).

But all the previous paintings that used this ‘through-a-mirror’ technique showed us something outside the canvas themselves – that is, they were just hanging (or standing) and showing the things passively. The artist invited us to solve these mirror puzzles.

Not that this time. Titian does not only shows a passive “mirror display” – the mirror here is very actively used by this pretty girl, it is she who employes it, directing our gaze to the things she wants us to see. But she is not only skillfully exploiting the reflective qualities of the mirror – she (or rather the artist, of course) is also exploiting our knowledge of how mirrors work, thereby forcing this whole scene into a steep spiral of what is called in semiotics as the loops of meaning grounding: I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you know (that I know you know –  and so forse, seemingly ad infinitum). In fact, people who study these issues are saying that you don’t need to get into this bad infinity, and that mutual grounding is achieved in three reciprocal loops (I would personally argue that you need pi loops … but this will be a large tangent).

It would be all very interesting even we would see reflected in a mirror, say, simple objects (like the cubes below; this would be also a good art project, a Mirrored Cubism of some sort – to repaint many art works that play with mirrors, replacing all their profound content into simple cubes):

But Titian and his pretty girl show us much richer content:

Playing with the mirror, Titian introduces into eternal, existential story about vanity of this world, a very new and very interesting dimension. In this way the emptiness and illusory nature of the material world – its virtuality, as we would call it today – and futility of all our efforts to collect, to keep our material possessions are shown literally as flesh-less reflections, as phantoms, fictions in the mirror. The sparkle of all these gems is false twice (and if to unleash all the grounding loops, then infinitely false).

This game of reflections also expose other qualities that are supposed to be questioned in this genre, for example, beauty, youth, and vitality of life in general. The young, beautiful girl sees (and shows us) an old woman in the mirror. Another bipolarity is enacted with the candle – in her hand the girl holds already extinguished one, while it still burns in the hands of the old lady:

Similar to many other multi-layered metaphors, this one, too, can be unpacked for quite a while. With all its illusory, virtual nature, this fake glitter is nonetheless occupies a central place picture, and still attracts the eyes of the the girl (she’s not looking at us, but at the pile of coins) – and she directed our attention there as well.

Speaking about the ‘depths’ of the mirror – in a paradoxical way, these virtual depths are somehow embedded, inserted in the body of the girl. If it would be Dali, he would paint a surreal mirror drawer, where we would see the insides of the girls as well. It looks like all existential virtuality (or virtual existentiality ?) – lies inside ourselves (and looks likes it’s somewhere in our liver). In some similar way our age is somehow already embedded into us, from the very youth (although this latter may not yet be aware of it).

The natural question is, of course, whether Titian knew all that, and wanted to express exactly these ideas? Or I attribute to him a completely alien, Sartrian themes? To be honestly – I do not know; I would like to know more about their way of thinking at that time to really talk about all these issues.

This painting is not explicitly religious; vanity here – if we accept it’s about vanity, and its condemnation  – is not about religions sin (i.e., not sacral), but more about mundane, Earthly realities (i.e., profane matters), even if expressed allegorically.

Employment of allegorical themes was quickly becoming popular at this time, and Titian was one of the most active practitioners; here, for example, his other work, which is usually described as Allegory of Flora (Flora is the goddess of spring, flowers (and all plants in general), as well as fertility). This painting (currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence) is usually dated about 1520, but there are other, earlier estimates,  so these two paintings could well been parts of the same cycle.

Noticeable is a high similarity of these two girls, of their general poses, their faces (even if they are looking in different directions), and multiple small details – for example, in the characteristic shape of their V-fingers.

What if this V stand not for Vanity, but for some other allegory? For example, Venus which would also explain the mirror)? Or, at least, any other of the many Roman goddesses of fertility? There are many hidden things, and buried Easter eggs in this work.

For example, we can detect an old man’s portrait in the curls of Flora; what if there is  something similar in our “Vanity”/”Venus”?

We may see nothing now, but it could well be present in the past – according to modern x-ray research, the painting was numerously edited, including by the pupils. But even without finding some hidden elements with new symbolism, we don’t quite understand even what we see clearly. For example, what’s the meaning of the scarf weaved into her hairs? Does it say something about its  owner.

An alternative title of the painting is Profane Love (or Earthly Love, This Worldly, Love) seems to be even more problematic. At about the same time (in 1514) Titian painted another work, Amor Sacro y Amor Profano. 

This is relatively well studied a work (I skip a copy/paste exercise), but even without detailed analysis it is clear who is who here. This clarity is missed, of course, in case of the girl with a mirror.

When I was writing this piece, so called, ‘member of household’ suggested an alternative version – what if the girl is showing all these jewelry not to us, but a certain person (in front of her) who would be trying all of them soon – before the mirror? For example, this very old lady, perhaps she will approach the mirror soon, to try all these treasures? What if this is not an ‘allegorical scene’, but merely a domestic episode? A very tempting interpretation, in contrast to all the ‘high-end art criticism’.


A few other ‘wild guesses’:

What if the woman in the background also looks at the mirror? Another one, which we (now?) can’t see:


Contemporary attributions usually see a ‘door’ or a ‘cabinet’ there, but maybe there was another mirror? And what if we would be able to see the reflection of this lady in it?  (reflected already in the first mirror? That would be incredibly amusing composition then, surely first in the art history).

Another, more (or less) believable possibility is that one of the large gems lying on the foreground could also contain some reflection:

But who could be reflected there? The girl herself? The girl AND the mirror (that would be a wow!) She may also look at the ‘real gems’ , and see them reflecting the mirror that she holds, herself – and the gems’ reflection; is that possible optically?

May be it’s a cameo? And we would be ably to see the artist himself, in this micro self-portrait?

Even if leaving aside these exotic versions, we still have quite a unique example of depicting mirror; it deserves its own icon , Through the Looking Glass:

PS: I am translating this story more than a year later after it was originally written, and to be honest, I can’t remember what I meant by the subject: ‘V+V’ most likely referred to ‘Vanity + Venus’, but what is ‘W/M’ exactly, I’ve already forgotten 😦


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