Bathsheba and her Mirror Gadget

Well, she is clearly demonstrating to everyone around her amazing brea…  new iPhone!”  Such was an interpretation of this sixteen century painting by the famous Flemish mannerist readily provided by my teenager son.

He, of course, interpreted not the above collage, but the real painting shown below (the collage was made thereafter).

“I do such things myself every time I get a new gadget”, added the teen. “I fiddle it in my hands, as if inconspicuously, but making sure everyone sees it”

Exactly what, where, when and whom to – and why? – is showing the lady Bathsheba, portrayed in this painting?  In more simple way, what is going on here?

The official title of this painting by Jan Massys (or Matsys, or Metsys, or sometimes Massijs or Metsijs) – Bathsheba Observed by the King David. I also saw the Dutch versions like “De Koning David glurt naar Bathsheba” – King David is peeping at Bathsheba (the verb gluren is often used to describe the looking through a keyhole).

The name ‘Massys’ already flashed in this blog, when I was writing about the painting by Quentin Matsys, The Moneylender and His Wife (1514). Jan Massys was a son of the Leuven-based painter who at some point moved to Antwerpen (where, in fact,  Jan was born, and where he eventually became a painter, too).

The first works by the Masseys-the-son we know are very similar to those of his father (understandably, because initially he worked in the father’s workshop, which he later inherited, together, as it often happened during those days, with the ‘artistic tradition’ embedded in it).

Compare, for example, one of his earlier works, At the tax collector (1539), with the same Moneylender and His Wife. Both general composition and many specific details of this work resemble the earlier painting by his father.


Beim Steuereintreiber (At the tax collector) (1539)

But then something happened; something that has changed the life of Jan Massys very dramatically. Very little is known about this period, but apparently he was accused in heresy, and had to run and hide for several years in different cities and countries, including in Italy.

The life in Italy has radically altered his artistic style. When he eventually returns back to Antwerp, it is a an entirely different painter altogether, who produces very different pictures. Compare, for example, the above town dwellers with his Flora (1559):



or with his Venus from Cythera (1560)

Not only the manner of painting is very different now –  Masseys became one of the first representatives of the Northern mannerism, a follower of an increasingly popular artistic style (paradigm, even) that emerged in Italy from the 1520s onward. The themes of his work are now different, too: he is depicting the classical subjects, the scenes from either Roman or Greek mythology.

In this context it’s easy to mistake the painting for yet another Venus with a Mirror. The woman is beautiful, her pose is charmingly erotic, and the thing we miss is Cupid with his Love Arrows, hiding somewhere.

However, the first impression is wrong, and the story depicted here is of a very different nature. In fact, to my knowledge this is is the fist time when we see a mirror in the context of the story from the Old Testament.

According to the Book of Kings, Bathsheba (Hebrew: בת שבע‎, Bath Shebha, “daughter of the oath”) was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the generals of David, the king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. In one of the warm evenings the king David wandered onto the roof of his palace, where from he saw Bathsheba (bathing? or simply undressed? – this is not very clear in the text, but majority of interpretations are in favor the ‘bathing scene’).

The beauty of the woman struck him so much that immediately sent a messenger, with a mission to summon this beauty into his palace. Meanwhile, as the king has learned,  Bathsheba was the wife of one of his valiant generals; allegedly, he didn’t know that when calling for the woman. But the king somehow was not stopped by this knowledge and, as the Hebrew Bible evasively describes, fell into sin; apparently so deeply that Bathsheba got pregnant.

In an attempt to fix an awkward situation the king ordered Uriah to come back to the city (the army of the king was fighting elsewhere at the moment), in order to pretend later that the child would be of him. But even though Uriah returned from the front, he refused to go to his own house, preferring to stay with the troops in a camp.

The King David had to use plan B, then; he ordered to send the general to the most dangerous place in the battlefield where he had to left unprotected (in other words, it was slightly dressed an execution). The story is full of macabre details, such as the delivery of this final sentence order by the unsuspecting Bathsheba, and the like.

Incidentally, the end of the story is not so bad, especially by the standards of the time and place (and of course not counting the views of Uriah on this subject matter). After his (Uriah’s) death, David took Bathsheba as his legitimate wife; moreover, her son later became the famous king Solomon. Thus, there are many VIPs in this story, plenty of dramatic developments – but of course, no mirrors, at least not in the original version, the Old Testament.

No mirrors can be seen in other work by Masseys on the same topic, painted a few years later, in 1565:

King David and Bathsheba (1565)

The choice of the subject wasn’t something exceptional; on the contrary, the story of Bathsheba was quite popular, both in the various illuminations of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and in the paintings.

I gathered a few examples of how this scene was depicted in the various Bibles and the Books of Hours; it is by no means an exhaustive collection, but even this small selection would allow us to track a few patterns.

In many earlier manuscripts both Bathsheba and the king David are painted as lone figures: the woman’s bathing, and the man’s watching.

Later we see the versions when Bathsheba is still alone, while David is getting his companions:

Further down, Bathsheba becomes surrounded by various assistants too (female ones, most often), although they are usually not actively involved in her bathing, and tend to stay (or sit) at a distance.

Finally we see a few the large group acts, multi-figure public performances around fountains of various sorts:

Yet another cluster consist of the complex strips presenting the whole story in a few unfolding images (as in comic strips of today):

Needless to say, we see no mirrors in these illustrations. Nor find we the mirrors in the earlier paintings on the subject, for example, by Lucas Cranach the Elder:

Lucas Cranach the Elder – King David and Bathsheba (1526)

Lucas Cranach the Elder – King David and Bathsheba (1534)
Lucas Cranach the Elder (?) – King David and Bathsheba (1526)
Cranach depicts David playing an harp, looking more like a courting nobleman, not a tyrannical king. Correspondingly, his Bathshebas here is fully dressed (in general Cranach wasn’t particularly shy when undressing his models); the lady just wets her feet rather than take a bath.
There were, of course, totally opposite approaches to the depiction of the Bahsheba’s body:

Heinrich Aldegrever – Bathsheba at the Bath (1535)

Here we see a basin and a sponge very similar to the ones painted by Masseys; but again, no mirrors.

There is no mirror in the Bathing of Bathsheba (1485) by Hans Memling either (although, as I wrote already, Memling depicted mirrors in at least two of his other works):

(In the context of this posting it’s tempting to assume that the enigmatic Naked Lady by Jan van Eyck is in fact Bathsheba Bathing too; and that somewhere in the window there we could see the looming David). It would be quite a nice turn, and if true, than it would be then van Eyck who introduced the first mirror into the Old Testament story, and not Massys! But for the moment I’ have to put such a Dan Brownian guess aside, and deal with what’s known and certain.

Also known and certain is a small mirror in the left hand of Bathsheba:

From a “mirror work” point of view it’s a pretty poorly depicted mirror, I have to admit. The mirror is not ‘used’, Bathsheba doesn’t even even look at it (she looks at us). And of course we don’t see the mirror’s surface, and cant’ say what it reflects.

But it’s an interesting device (=gadget) nevertheless. Worth noting, it’s a ‘new model’: it’s a flat, i.e., non-convex mirror, and judging by the strings attached to its frame, it was a ‘mobile version’, the one that a lady would carry with her, perhaps all the time.

(It’s important to mention that Jan Masseys did painted the ‘proper’ mirrors, too. Below is a detail of one of his early works. Even if it’s an old-fashion, convex mirror, it is depicted with a reflection the woman’s face.

It is also a ‘social’ mirror, the one that unites the couple into one “cheerful whole”. Plus, it’s one of the earliest cases of the social ‘trickling down’ of the mirrors – it’s used here not by the noble people or divine creatures, but by relatively lame folks, if not peasant than at least merchants or craftsmen.

Some argue that the very first mirror in the vicinity of Bathsheba appears not in the work by Masseys, but on the frescoes by Gulio Romano, in the famous Castle of Te (Palazo Tejeto), near Mantua, Italy.

We certainly can see the mirror, but is she really Bathsheba?

The neighboring fresco is certainly of Bathsheba and the Kind David… but without the mirror:

So, the first fresco can be of Venus, for example. But even if it’s ultimately of Bathsheba, it would be still a fresco, not painting, and we can still maintain that the first canvas (or rather a board) that brought together Bathsheba and a mirror was painted by Jan Masseys!

Victorious crowning aside, what is also really interesting here is the combination of a) Mirror and b) Basin (and the whole bathing/water/hygiene context). Until now (and if not to count the disappeared painting by van Eyck), we didn’t see them together in any of the paintings. From this moment on their paths will be intersecting more and more often, opening the way to many followers, up until Degas (and beyond, of course).

Soon after the painting by Massys mirrors have taken a firm place in the scenes about Bathsheba and her bathing exercises:

Artemisia Gentileschi – Bathing Bathsheba (1650).

Here the woman’s not so much bathing but trying on jewelry (naked? I always thought that the jewelries are supposed to fit the outfit, no?)

Domenico Gargiulo – Bathsheba (c.1645)

Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari – Bathsheba at Her Bath (c.1690).  Here we see at least some reflection in the mirror. By the end of XVII century such convex mirrors should have nearly disappeared; perhaps the painter tried to depict an archaic scene of some sort in such a manner?

Carlo Maratta – Bathsheba at the Bath (1720). I guess it’s a pure remake of the above painting by Chiari.

Sebastiano Ricci – Bathsheba at the Bath (1725).

Sebastiano Ricci – Bathsheba in her Bath (1725). Here the mirror almost disappeared; it’s still there, but depicted only partly. Also interesting, it’s hold by a man (the David’s messenger?)

Most of the above painters are from Italy, but the story was also popular among the Northern masters too; see a couple of works by Flemish painters below:

Pieter de Grebber – The Toilet of Bathsheba (1644)

Nicolaas Verkolje – Bathseba (1716)

All these paintings may provide interesting insights into specific practices and a general    structure of women bathing in the late Renaissance, that’s true. But there is another dimension they may help us to understand, dealing with moral and ethical evaluation of the story in different times.

Technically speaking, it’s David who’s the asshole of the story – he is hankering for another man’s wife, he abuses his official position to force her into sexual intercourse with him, and subsequently (and in a group conspiracy) kills her lawful husband.

But him, for all his crimes, is hardly even rebuked – it’s Bathsheba who is positioned, and perceived as the main sinner in the story. It is her who ‘seduced’ David, but exposing her body at the wrong place and in the wrong time.  Even her name is was striped from the Bible where she’s referred as “this, that of (= wife) Uriah.”

Feminists often mention this case a typical example of victimization of women (and of double standards in general). Modern lawyers, however, would jump on these pictures as the evidence of this very ‘seduction version’: Bathsheba is portrayed here as a skillful tempter, who knowingly and intently arrange her ‘bathing session’ to impress the king.

Some painters went even further; for example, in this painting by Ruben we see not a  lady decency, but rather pretty coquette who knows very well when, where and in what direction to expose her ‘gadgets’:


Peter Paul Rubens – Bathsheba at the Fountain (1635)

Russian Carl Bryullov also painted his Bathsheba (1826) (traditionally called Вирсавия, Virsaviya in Russian) fully naked and flirting with a fully naked black (underaged) boy.

There are paintings where Bathsheba seems to be throwing a large bathing parties, skillfully setting lustful traps for the naive and inexperience king.


Jacopo Zucchi – Bathsheba Bathing (1580)

There was a somewhat different tradition too; while not missing a chance to portray a (semi)naked woman, some painters were still clearly showing their sympathy to Bathsheba.  In the Rembrandt painting we see a sad, heartbroken woman rather than a light-heart seducer of the kings.  

Rembrandt – Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654)

This picture, however, may be also confusing: since there some sort of ‘bathing’ happening here too (an old lady washes Bathsheba’s feet), we may mistake it for Bathsheba Bathing.  But in fact what is shown is a much later moment in the story – Bathsheba is holding a letter with the order to kill her husband.

But Rembrandt also has another, ‘real’ Bathsheba Bathing a painting, where Bathsheba might be still interpreted as the ‘seducer’:


Rembrandt – The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643)

There is no mirror in the work, but the painting has another interesting example of technological backcasting, in a genre of “Nanotechnology in the Ancient Rome.” The old lady who makes a pedicure for Bathsheba wears glass spectacles that technically speaking two – if not three – thousand years after the events described in the Old Testament.

Currently the interest to the story has almost gone; not only because of the general decline of the religious art (in Europe, is at least), but also because of the lack of any need to somehow justify the “naked body” in the paintings. Degas once wrote how happy is he because he doesn’t have to pretend to paint Bathsheba if he want to paint a naked woman with a basin (more precisely he said it about Susanne, but the meaning is the same).

Very deep, existential meaning of the story of course remains, and it was often depicted by such masters as Marc Chagall, who created a few simple but very powerful works.

Marc Chagall – Kind David and Bathsheba (1957)

Marc Chagall – David and Bathsheba (1958)

Marc Chagall – David and Bathsheba (1956)

Ok, what’s the ‘dry residue” in this overall wet theme? First, as I already wrote earlier, it is apparently the first time when mirror had been used to illustrate the Old Testament story (earlier the mirrors were present only in the New Testaments, for instance, the mirrors of St. Mary):

And then of course the link between a Mirror and a Basin (or a toilette, but proper toilette, with water procedures.

Interestingly that all the vanity scenes portrayed before had toilettes, and often with  mirrors, but they were dry. For us, living in modern apartments, with modern bathrooms, that almost by default have mirrors, it’s hard to imagine that at some point the link “water / wash” and “mirror” was not only non-obvious, but somehow even unthinkable. “Washing” and “beautification” were two very different practices.

PS: I actually later found mirrors in the manuscripts’ illumination about Bathsheba, too.

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