Elbow Weaving in a Mirror

I wrote about this painting by Bellini already (see Donna con due specchi), and why writing again? Can I add something new to my concept of a complex self-reflective cocoon that (as I suggested) Bellini was trying to depict here, using a system of two mirrors?

Well, may be no, but may be yes. There is one immediate reason to write one more time, and this is the fact that this work was put to the Google Art Project (see Young Woman at Her Toilette), so many of the questions I was asking in my previous posting can be easily resolved now (the last time I was writing having one very small and dark reproduction in my hands; I can only dream about the day when ALL paintings will be  available in at least the GAP quality!)

For example, I complained that no one pays attention (allegedly) to the note that lays on the carpet… 


… while obviously every one who would see the painting in ‘real life’ (or have seen a copy of decent quality) would immediately see what’s written on the note – it merely says Johannes bellinus faciebat M.D.X.V – Giovanni Bellini did that in 1515, a typical signature format of that time.

Availability of high-res pictures allows not only for more joy, but also an opportunity to spot a myriad of tiny details, including some ‘visual jokes’ of the master: people often mentioned these lovely smooth transitions of the dress’ folds into the lines of the hills and mountains:

But this reproduction also shows nice transitions of color of her dress into the clouds and the sky, and the transition of the ‘grapes’ into into the trees on the slopes of the Italian hills:

The discovery of all these little jokes led me to a conclusion that there is a joke of some sort in the main subject of the painting, too. I think now that Bellini here played a very subtle and very clever game, by inserting into this painting a riddle related to the way how (convex) mirrors work.

I wrote already last time that certain anatomical disproportions of this work raise some questions (surprisingly, I didn’t find any of the questions asked, neither by the museum nor by any of the art researchers who write about this work.)

These questions are about the elbow:

The left elbow of the woman looks like it’s terribly deformed, as if inflated; it looks twice as big compared to other elbow and the body in general (and even compared to its own arm’s lower part). It is difficult to imagine that the master of that level didn’t manage to depict the proportions of the body ‘correctly’. It is clearly a deliberate distortion – which I can’t remember anyone mentioning, describing or interpreting (I might be wrong with such assumption, please do let me know if you aware of any such examples).

I tried to play a bit with my own two-mirror system, compiled from one large flat mirror hanging one a wall and one small round hand-held mirror. The task was tricky, since I’d need the third hand to also take a picture. But this is my result:

This is roughly what the woman should be seeing in her small mirror; an interlay of two elbows, of various size.  In her case the rear one could be also much thicker, since her rear mirror, that hangs on a wall, is a convex one. But even without this complications, she would have to confront this thicket of hands in front of her eyes, and of different thickness.

In my previous posting I wrote about this “mirror trance”, a complex cognitive and perceptual work that any one should be doing when working with such two-mirror system: a person has to constantly alterate its focus, switching it from one reflection in a mirror to another (reflection of a reflection in this case). Now I would add that it is also a difficult handwork – it requires a decent coordination of a multi-component system to eventually produce the desired result (in this case, the right arrangement of the stylish scarf on her head).

My guess is that Bellini tried to explicitly depict, and share with us, this complex hand-juggling that the woman would see in her mirrors. Bellini basically pulled it out of a hand-held mirror and placed into the painting itself, by showing this deformed elbow. He sacrificed the formal anatomical correctness in favor of depicting the ‘experience’ of looking at the double mirror. A witty joke by the artist, but also an incredible innovative way of showing psychological/perceptual experiences.

If Bellini would be Escher, we would see all these intricate interweaving of the elbows in her pupils:

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