Between the Comb and the Mirror

Attentive readers of this blog will immediately recognize this creature – she is of course a melusine!  And they will be wrong.

Or more correctly, they may be somewhat right, because this woman-like creature with froggy feet and a spiraling tail can indeed be a melusine, either not yet met by her king in the woods, or already fled from him. But in any case we know that the author wanted to say something else with this picture.

Here is the full context of the above de-tail:

This is an ink drawing by Peter Vischer the Younger (1487-1528), an artist from Nuremberg. In the book I’m currently reading, Renaissance Venice and the North (an amazingly rich and informative volume, by the way), he is described as almost the second in a raw after Albrecht Dürer (who also worked in Nuremberg); they are both described as important transformators of the German art, through their introduction of mode advanced Italian techniques and themes. At the same time wikipedia doesn’t even have a separate article about him, and instead talks about their whole family, the  Vischer family of Nuremberg.

Peter was one of the five (!) sons of the famous sculptor with the exact same name, Peter Vischer, only the Elder (the exclamation mark here means my surprise with the fact that all of his sons also became sculptors and artists; but I guess it was a fairly typical practice for the time, when the skills were passing through the families).

Ironically, but their surname has some funny connotations in the context of this particular work; Vischer means Fisherman in German, or ‘of fish’; his personal seal looked like a stylized fish, too.

It is known that Peter Visher Junior traveled to Italy in 1507-8 (he was about 20 by then). There are some indication that made more trips later too, in 1512 and then in 1514). In those days, these trips were not merely a tourism, but served serious business purposes: from one hand, the German artist could learn from the Italian masterpieces, but there was also more pragmatic purses, to simply copy as many works as possible, to recreate – and sell – them later at home.

For example, this sketch is essentially a copy of the famous sculpture by the Italian master Andrea Riccio, that was standing in the early 16th century in Padua (or so says the book, I wasn’t able to find any traces of the sculpture yet.)  And both the sculpture itself and this drawing were supposed to portray Scylla, as it is written right on print.

Now, Scylla, or sometimes Skylla, is monster that does come alone, as we know. From the early childhood I remember these stories about these twin monsters, Scylla and   Charybdis, who were waiting for unwary sailors, to crash their ships and cease their lives. On the pictures below Scylla is the creature with the snake heads:

Such dramatic view were not present in real life, perhaps, yet we can imagine that narrow the Strait of Messina, between Sicily (!) and Calabria in the south of Italy could bring lots of troubles to the sailors; at night, during the storm one can see many horrible ‘things’ around).

But all these geographical details help very little in understanding a complex and (psychoanalytically) twisted biography of the girl (a nymph, even) called Σκύλλα.

There is at least a dozen versions of her origin (and thus, of her life and acts.) According to various sources, Scylla was the daughter of:

– Phorcys (alternatively – Phorbant) and Ceto (Hecate ?);

– Triton and Lamia (alternatively – Echidne);

– Poseidon and Crataeis (alternatively – Gaia);

– Trien (alternatively – Fork) and the river nimph (?) Krathaeida

and this is only small selection of her possible genealogies.

Homer calls her the daughter of Krathaeida, who is in turn the daughter of Hecate and Triton (so Scylla would be their granddaughter then, not daughter).

Virgil’s Scylla was the daughter of the King Nisus, whom she stolen his famous crimson hair from, that she later gave to Minos, Nisus’ enemy, who she fell in love with. As a result Nisis was defeated and/or he pursued his daughter, and then turned into osprey; and she was turned into the wrasse fish (alternatively, into a eagle). Or he, Nisis, has killed himself. Etcetcetc.

And all this whimsical, interlaced salade we are given as History!

The following version was fairly popular, and it is also often depicted in visual art: Scylla in this story was just a beautiful girl (but of course in some alternatives she was still a water nymph) who was once met by Glaucus, a prophetic sea-god, and who fell in love with her:

Bartholomeus Spranger – Glaucus и Scylla (1580)

Apparently, Scylla was not very fond of Glaucus, yet he was a powerful god and stuff, so the situation got complicated. The girl decided to seek an advice from Circe, the famous witch (alternatively – the goddess of the moon). That was a mistake: as it turned out, Circe was in love with Glaucus herself, and therefore decided to remove Scylla off her way, by poisoning her, for example.

Here we see the moment when Circe our venom into water:

John Melhuish Strudwick – Circe Poisons Scylla (1886)

Looks like Circe knew his business very well, since the girl got very ill – and some say that she turned into a terrible monster. Some also say that this monster had the dog heads instead of its legs (but it could be just an allusion to the Greek form of her name, Σκύλλα, which also means “to bark”.)

Here we see the very moment of such transformation of Scylla in a dog-head-legged monster:

In the not so hard-horror versions the girl was turned into half-fish/half-snake type of creature – or a half-frog, as we actually see on the drawing by Peter Vischer.

These two frog legs make her similar to melusine (and in turn can explain how the  melusines themselves got their two-end tails; perhaps, this was an allusion to the frogs, too.  And then it may be worth to explore the connections of this (and the melusines’) story with the one of the Frog Princess.

But in other time, perhaps; now back to the mirror, and we see a really nice one here:

As usual, it is not very clear why and with what purposes it is depicted here; the  authors of the book suggest that it is a reference to the motif of Vanity. This doesn’t explain much, however; is it a generic reference to any woman’s (alleged) inclination to vanity? or a ponter to particular twist in the plot? Perhaps, the nymph was narcissistic and rejected the love of Glaucus because of that?  And now, as a punishment for her excessive self-admiration she will destroying the ships (one is floating by already) and killing the sailors?

Besides all these entertaining mythological turns, we also see here an interesting moment of interaction with a mirror, this time suspended on a lace. Technically speaking, it’s on a wrong level, in relation to her eyes; she can’t even look at this  mirror properly. Unless we assume that the painter wanted to present exactly that moment, of the the girl  picking up the mirror, the mirror moving up. In combinaiton with her own unstable posture it makes the scene really dynamic and lively.

Interesting that despite all this forest around, Scylla didn’t forget to lay out all her jars with cream and a makeup brush; there might be a comb somewhere in the grass, too.

This drawing can also help to better understand the otherwise enigmatic etching by Dürer, often generically called the Sea Monster:

And may be some other works too, for example, this also very mysterious engraving by Agostino Veneziano, where we still know nothing on who is exactly portrayed here, and what is she doing with her mirror:




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