Mirror sacrifice

I have already written quite a lot about Titian and his mirrors (simply for the record, these are my past entries: 1, 2, 3). Indeed, he alone essentially created a complex “mirror world”, depicting the changes in “technology of the mirrors” during his lifetime (the transition from convex to flat mirrors) and also demonstrating (and often inventing) novel use of mirrors in art (starting from the famous Venus Effect, named after one of his painting).

When I write, “I’ve written a lot,” I usually add “and still will be writing”, but in case of Titian it was in fact almost opposite: I was pretty sure that I covered all his major ‘mirror works’ and was going to ‘park’ Titian’s mirrors for a while.

Wrong. The lesson is ‘Don’t tell that you covered all the mirrors’; you can’t because their number of infinite (especially if to count all the reflections).

The other day I came across a funny quiz about Titian and his art works (you could try it here, through it’s in Russian), which I ‘passed’, demonstrating my superb knowledge of (art) history.  But more importantly, I suddenly discovered yet another Titian’ mirror – as I understand, the very first one he painted – which in some way made my chain of his mirrors (see above) complete (the process was somewhat similar to my exploration of Hans Baldung’s mirrors, that I also couldn’t quite complete before I found his earliest mirror).

In the case of Baldung everything became sorcery at once; for Titian I could say that all his mirrors become Cytherean (or if to speak bluntly, ‘it’s all about sex love, stupid!”.

But let’s start from this ‘missing mirror’ first:

This is a very amusing painting; in some paradoxical, albeit also bit cynical, way, it echoes the story of poor St.Ursula and her many thousands of virgins. Though this one is not tragic, quite the contrary, all this swarm of crawling cupids makes the scene very joyful and adorable (yet inevitably very absurd, in a Kharmsian way).

One of the reasons that I didn’t find this work before is that I still haven’t been to the Prado Museum in Madrid, where this is currently on display, and quite difficult to miss. The work is quite large, 175 x 175 cm, one of those “wall-size” painting. It was indeed aimed to serve like a huge wall-paper – Titian painted it for the palace of Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who wanted to decorate his so called Alabaster Hall with various mythological scenes (= ‘mythological’ here also means ‘pagan’, i.e., non-Christian imagery, which was still quite piquant for that time (beginning of the 16th century) and place (Papal Italy).

The title of the work is The Worship of Venus, and it is, in fact, an illustration of one of the places from Philostratus the Elder, who described the action in the following verse:

“See cupids are gathering apples: and if there are many of them, do not be surprised … The cupids’ quiver are studded with gold, and golden also are the darts in them … they have hung their quivers on the apple trees; and in the grass lie their broidered mantles … Ah, the baskets into which they gather their apples!

Here are a couple of close-up pictures (I highly recommended to look at the large images to enjoy the details):

The apples that are gathered by cupids are a gift (sacrifice) to their mother, the goddess of love Venus (who is shown here already in the form of a statue, not a real woman).

Despite its unreal, paradise-like feeling, the depicted scene of real festivities that occurred in Rome in honor of Venus (usually around April 1), even if allegorical. During this feast women were bringing various gifts to the temples and shrines of the goddess. 

We see two of such women, and one of them offers her gift to Venus – and this is a mirror! Another name of the work is The Offering to Venus.

To note, this convex mirror should be quite an expensive gift, not in the Roman times (it wouldn’t exist by then), but during the time of the painting.

The exact date of the work is not known, and it is usually attributed as 1515-1518, and even 1519. In fact, this very mirror suggests that this work was created sooner rather than later, I should say, 1515 latest. It is still a convex mirror, perhaps one from the last generation before the really flat mirrors started to appear in Venice. It’s already more or less flattened mirror, but still not yet completely flat:

There is also another possibility – the work can be painted later in the end of 1510s, but its design can be made much earlier. It is known that the first sketches for the palace of Alfonso d’Este had been made by Bellini and then Fra Bartolomeo – who both happened to die during the commission, and so their work was completed by younger masters, including Titian.

Knowing this context, the mirror could indeed reflects how these old masters understood ‘mirrors’ and the way they should be depicted in art; indeed, this mirror here is very similar to the one held in the hands of Donna con due specchi

Not surprisingly, it is the most basic, almost primitive, mirrors of Titian, both technologically and in terms of its ‘mirror work’. I do not think that there was even an attempt to show any reflection in this mirror (we see only a small gleam of light near the frame).

Such depletion of the ‘true mirror use’ makes this mirror somewhat similar to the purely symbolic “throne mirror” of St.Ursula; of course, its ‘content’ is very different (here the mirror is a reference to the one of the common attributes of Venus) but this pure symbolism is a shared property. In this way this mirror of Titian also resembles the one held by the Queen of Reason in Christina de Pisan’s book.

That is, even if it was a real mirror once, and was previously used by this woman for its “functional purposes”, in the process of presenting it to the goddess it turns into what is known as a votive object; a simulacrum of the victim.


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