Mirror with a (Fish) Tail

My topic today, mermaids with mirrors in medieval manuscripts, is slightly slippery; not only because of natural habitat of the creatures in question, but also because of the constant danger in fall into banal and superficial interpretations.  In my previous posting I struggled with identification of the heroine – was it a half-woman? a half-siren?. The picture above apparently doesn’t pose any problems, we can clearly see here a mermaid, a legendary half-woman, half-fish.

The mermaid on this illumination us holding not only a mirror (where, incidentally, we can see her reflection), but also a comb; this is a very typical combination that will be present in multiple manuscripts, and it clearly reflects the ‘feminine’ side.

And yet the image itself is from one of the old British Bestiaries (it is vaguely dated by ’15th century’), that is, the directory of the fauna (‘beasts’) of the time, which indicates that mermaids had been considered as a kind of animal.

This is a page from another bestiary, the book with a fantastic The Book of the Properties of Things (14th century), illuminated by Jean Bordichon (a student of Jean Fouquet). It shows the “mammal” part, and we see the mermaid among all the other animals – cats and dogs, camels and elephants, but also unicorns and dragons (and she is with her mirror again).

The earliest image of the mermaid with a mirror I found so far is from the so called  Luttrell Psalter, written and illustrated circa 1320-1330.

Similar to the first miniature, the mermaid is taken out of water here, and shown more like an emblem rather than a real creature in her ‘natural habitat’. This design will become canonical for a few centuries when portraying the mermaids. The mirror does not have the mermaid’s face reflected in it, but the original version may well be made out gold or other metallic pigment, that would demonstrate its ‘reflectivity’.

Here is another very similar illustration from one early 15th-century Book of Hours:

This fragment below is from a manuscript apparently stored in the British Library, but I couldn’t find any information about it. We see a somewhat more advanced depiction of a mermaid here; she busy with combing her flowing hair, while looking at the large, and vividly convex mirror. The latter even has an appropriately distorted reflection (although not of the mermaid, but of a window of some sort).

The next mirror is even more advanced; it is disproportionally large compared to rather fragile mermaid, but it also has a base, and its design is similar to the mirror on a table of Christine de Pisan.

This is not very surpassing, since the manuscript is of much later date, circa middle of the 15th century. Here is an entire page:

As in the majority of other cases, a scene with a mermaid is not central here, but marginal; but even in this minor role I still can’t comprehend how mermaids found their way into the Christian books. Here, for example, it is a neighbor of the scene with the Adoration of the Magi, which means that it’s one of the gospels (!).

Apparently the authors didn’t find anything embarrassing in placing these fantastic creatures (non only mermaids, but also a two-headed dragon-like monster) next to the Biblical figures.

Here is another mermaid, from the late 15th century Psalter:

An interesting feature here is the inscription on the mirror frame (or more precisely, a  possible inscription, since it may be just an element of ornamentation). In any case, I can’t read the inscription, and can’t decode the message.

Here is again the whole page:

Here I can read at least some of the inscriptions – such as the top banner that says Amor Vincit Omnia, Love Conquers All, the famous saying popular during the Renaissance age. In the context of the Psalter, however, the meaning of ‘Love’ here could be very different from the lay, secular feelings.

It’s worth to recall here that mermaids were generally known not by their exercises with the mirrors, but by their much darker actions, for example, by dragging the sailors from the ships – or sometimes even the ships themselves! – to the sea bottom, as it is shown on the illustration from the late 14th century volume by Hugh of Fouilloy (or Hugo de Folieto).

Here I have some questions about the exact dating of this volume; in fact, Hugh of Fouilloy lived in the 11-12 centuries. He indeed illustrated several famous bestiaries, including Aviarium, the one specifically about birds. But the illustrations from these books look much more archaic then the above with the mermaids – compare, for example, these ones:

Perhaps, there is a mistake here, either with the dates, or with the attribution. IN any case, the mermaid are clearly doing something nasty with sailors.

Speaking about birds, I sense there had been many more confusions in this story. Apparently, at some point two different myths had been mixed, of mermaids and of sirenes, the Greek femmes fatale, who lured the sailors into their claws by beautiful songs (and their ships, onto the cliffs). The history is very vividly presented in the Homer’s Odyssey. Interestingly, the original sirens were not half-women-half-fishes, but half-birds.

And in some versions they’ve been ‘just women’ who lived among the coastal rocks.

Edward Armitage – The Siren (1888)

In none of these cases the sirens would use the brutal force to grab the poor sailors. Instead, they were deceiving them, using various multimedia (but mostly audio) tricks. Apparently, mermaids inherited not only the goals, but the means, too: here on the engraving by Vincenzo Cartari (mid 16th century), we see that they both harpies/sirens  and mermaids are present, but it is the latter who play on musical instruments:

We see the connection between the mermaids and music on other artworks, too:

On this illustration by Robinet Testard not only both mermaids, but also other sea creatures play on musical instruments.

This works also shows that mermaids not always have been depicted with the mirrors. In fact, more often than not we we see completely peaceful mermaids without any mirrors.

The above is also a page from the Book of Hours, made in Venice or Padua around the end of the 14th century, but interestingly that it’s from its liturgical, “musical” part.

And one this page we can hardly notice the mermaid, because of the lavish vegetation:

Here is a bigger fragment, and we see the mermaids holds something like a pipe, or a horn in her her hand; the page is also from the “musical” part, it’s the beginning of the psalm Sacratissimum.

But sometimes there is no connection with music at all, and the mermaids are portrayed as just another occupants of the marine world:

Often these worlds are depicted with great amount of fantasy; these mermaids resemble the figures of Chagall flying in the skies:

Pertaining mermaids to the “wildlife” can be also seen in the following engraving, by the German master Anton Koberger, from his famous Nuremberg Bible (1483). Here the mermaids swim around the Noah’s Ark (which, however, doesn’t carry any special animals – we only see few dogs, some cats and a mice (and a lot of birds, including the peacock). Technically speaking, mermaids (similar to other sea creatures) didn’t need any rescue from the Flood, so here they are simply a company to the Noah’s Ark. One of them also holds a mirror and a comb.

Some others scenes are not so peaceful, and the mermaids often hold more dangerous items in their hands, like the swords in this case, and bravely attack the crew on their own territory (this is part of the leaf from the manuscripts of the early 16th century):

An attentive reader would notice that the mermaids above are slightly unusual, two-tailed ones. She would be right, this attentive reader, and I’m going to write about this type of creatures it a separate posting.

In the meantime, I will focus only on “pure mermaids.” It’s all very nice and cool, the  mermaids, the legends, the manuscripts. But how comes that the mermaids have their mirrors in a first place?

Some mermaids are not depicted with the mirrors and combs, but instead with the   fish and … fish skeleton (?) (this is also a page from a bestiary, the so-called Ashmole Bestiary):

Or may be it’s a kind of shell?  or a mussel, a clam? It should be noted here that the Ashmole Bestiary is a very old book, from the late 12th century (that is, it is 11 .. and say, 70). By then in Europe they might not make any glass mirrors yet (and the metal ones were also not widely spread).

So the very first mermaids – similar to Venus at first – could be drawn with the shells and fishes and in their hands, that only later transformed into the mirrors (also similar to Venus, but may be also because of the similar transformation in case of Venus).

I wrote about this shift already, though in passing, in a posting about Venus, it may be worthwhile to issue it as a separate posting, but until just a couple of examples:

Here is the Titian’s Venus Anadyomene (or Venus Emerging from the Sea) (1515) – notice the shell:

The is a more recent, but very similar work, by Théodore Chassériau – Venus Anadyomene, or Venus of the Sea (1838), again with various shell next to her feet:

And not the Mermaid, by John William Waterhouse (1901), with the same large shell, resembling a convex mirror, and also with a pearl necklace; notice the comb in her hand.

This theme, of mermaids and shells, was also depicted in the old manuscripts, and not only in the books; see, for instance, a fragment of the ancient tapestry, where the mermaid shows off her pearls before a centaur:

The mermaid here is again little weird, with the birdy legs strange; but in general it again reaffirms the same link, between the shells and mirrors:

Andrea del Brescianino – Venus with Shell Mirror (1525) – detail

The painting by Vasari shows that these worlds, of Venus, and of mermaids (and other see creatures), are in fact one and the same; and the pearls and shells are used by all.

Giorgio Vasari – The birth of Venus (1555-7) – деталь

Ok, a few preliminary conclusions:

– We see plenty mermaids in many medieval manuscripts (which is a bit odd, given the fact that almost all of them are Christian);

– We also see plenty mermaids with mirrors there (although it’s not clear, how and why they got connected);

– One possible version is that mermaids are portrayed as the ‘femmes fatale’, they need to have an appropriate tools to seduce the sailors;

– My version (not necessarily excluding the previous one) is that the “mirrors” appeared there as the modified shells (resembling similar trajectory in case of Venus);

– I would also like to note that to some surprise I didn’t find yet examples of the mermaids, who would look in water like at a mirror (similar to Narcissus).





3 thoughts on “Mirror with a (Fish) Tail

  1. I’m not surprised that there are no paintings of mermaids looking at their reflection in the water of some ocean: when is the sea quiet enough to produce a reflection like a pond or a well?

    • Nah, physical inability to get a clear reflection never stop them (the painters, that is) from depicting these scenes, of looking at water. There are numerous examples how Narcissus, for instance, is looking at the running stream of water. From another side, we don’t see Venus looking in water, either. Apparently, it was important for them to have these technological mediators of the activities.

  2. Pingback: Le Sirene: mito o realtà?

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