On Death and Beauty, and Shakespearean Mirrors

I have a fairly long to-do list for this blog and the postings here tend to be planned well ahead (this doesn’t mean they are themselves are well-planned, it only means that my ‘future road-maps’ stretch far.)  Yet from time to time I also write accidental postings too. The last one of such kind, to my memory, was the posting about Mirror of the Master of Death (though the stories about raree mirrors could be also seen as pretty accidental).

This one is of the same kidney; it was written spontaneously, as a response to the posting in another blog that I bumped into a couple of days ago.  This stimulus posting can be found here – Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects: Number 26, a vanitas, and it’s really worth reading it before going further with this text. I initially thought to write just a short comment there, but then this imaginary comment started to becoming larger and larger, and at the end became a story on its own.

A few words on the original posting. It seems to be a part of a larger project (this World of Shakespeare in 100 Object), but I have to admit that I didn’t read the other postings, and can’t really say if this one is average or significantly different, content- or style-wise).

As I said, it’s fairly short, 500 words or so, so one can not really expect much. Not every topic can be meaningfully described in a text half a page or so long, but some themes – such as Vanity – are particularly elusive. The very efforts should be praised, though, and so kudos to the author (who is a Doctoral Researcher in History, and so we could expect quite a serious take on the issue.)

The central object of the posting is this painting:

and it is also in the very center of a simple infoviz with which I started my own posting, trying to summarise the key topical/visual intersections related to this posting.

The original posting starts from the Sonnet №62 by William Shakespeare:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.

Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.

But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.

Tis thee (my self) that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

(the word glass is emphasise by my, not Shakespeare; to also show that this text has a direct retaliation to this blog.)


[NB: As a matter of a side-note, I think that this sonnet is not about vanity, but more on narcissism, and how mirrors can alleviate its symptoms. The canonical story holds a very different opinion (see Mirrors in Water: The Story of Narcissus), and it would be interesting to argue with Shakespeare here… but may be some other time, since today’s story is less about the famous British author and his views on mirrors.]

In fact, it wasn’t the sonnet, but the very painting that caught my eye. Let’s start from what we know about it. Not much, in fact. Its author is unknown, it dates to circa 1570s, and it’s usually known as Death and the Maiden.

The Your Paintings website by BBC describes its authorship in the following way:

“This painting shares close similarities with a very small group of works which include ‘The Allegory of Man’ and ‘The Allegory of the Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen). Among the artists associated with their production are Hans Eworth, Lucas de Heere and Joris Hoefnagel, but this painting cannot be ascribed with certainty to any of these.”

I have checked the website of the Statens Museum for Kunst of Denmark where they display very small reproduction of the painting by Hans Eworth, but to be honest found very little resemblance with this portrait. What is interesting is that Eworth and two other alleged authors of the work were all Flemish masters.

The most obvious relevance of this work to Shakespeare is its current location, in the so called Hall’s Croft, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the house that now hosts the Shakespeare Centre, and were used to live his daughter Susanna Hall (nee Shakespeare).

The author of the posting describes this painting in very straight form, as an example of vanitas, “so called for its reference to Ecclesiastes’ Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

I am afraid that significant part of the confusions that occur with this painting relates directly to the way how we understand the very term ‘vanity’ (and of course also because people tend to forget that this meaning was also shifting with time.) So called ‘lay person’ may do so, but I would expect a bit more sensitivity from the Doctoral Researcher in History. Even the most basic article in wikipedia (see Vanity) reveals that the term was seen very differently in different times and (sub)cultures.  But I will come to this point a bit later, too.

What was interesting for me is his immediate interpretation of the man as the Father Time (and equally interesting is the fact that the women somehow avoids this allegorical interoperation and remains to be ‘just woman with a mirror’.)  To confirm this attribution, we are provided with the line from the Sonnet, where the face is described as ‘beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity’ (by the way, many commentators agreed that ‘chopped’ (=minced, sliced’) should actually be read as ‘chapped’ (=’old’ and ‘wrinkled’).

Then there is an interesting passage. We are offered to compare this painting with another one, also traditionally called Death and the Maiden, by German Hans Baldung:

I actually wrote a large posting about this, and other works by Baldung (see Bewitched Mirrors of Hans Baldung), and although it was already some while ago, I would still buy many points of that posting.  One of them was that the interpretation of Baldung’s mirrors is more complex than the banal mythologem of Death and the Maiden.

By the way, here he also made a factual mistake. We read:

“She is using an ‘engraved mirror’, a convex burnished metal surface etched with decorative designs. These were used to double the reflection of light (from candles) in dim rooms, but did not have the reflective quality of the looking-glass.”

That’s not correct. Metal mirrors were still used in the times of Hans Baldung (end of 15th century), but were almost entirely marginalised by new technology, convex glass mirrors. The girl here holds exactly that mirror, the one made of glass and embedded in a wooden frame. And as I wrote, it does reflect the facer of the seeing person – only in this case Baldung decided to play metaphorically, and placed a skull inside this mirror:

The final paragraphs of the posting shape quite a statement:  if in the Baldung’s time ” women were [seen as]  intellectually and morally inferior to men”, then later in the times of Shakespeare (end of 16th – beginning of 17th century) “women were dignified and intelligent, capable of independent thought and artistic expression”.  Yes, “the wise old patriarchal figure still suggests a proscriptive tone”, but our woman “looks confidently out at us, seemingly carried away by the notes she is playing.  She is surrounded by instruments, books, furniture, and fine clothes, evidence of her learning and wealth.”

The final note of her new self-positioning goes like that:

“by refusing to look at the mirror, the woman could be rejecting the reflection, marred as it is by the presence of death and subject to the ravages of time”.


There are many different paths which this posting can go along , and some of them may fork more than the others. But before I will take any, I’d like to add a couple of details about the work that were forgotten, or omitted by the author.

The most obvious omission is right into our face: it is the text written in the painting itself. It says MORS ULTIMA LINEA RERUM EST – the quote from the Horace’s Epistles, literally meaning “Death is the thing which is last in line’, death is the ultimate end of everything.

Which means that the real meaning of the painting is not Vanitas, but Memento mori. However, to explain why these two are very different I would have to make quite a long detour (more than 500 words for sure).

Let me start from visual associations first. One of the reason why I was caught by this painting is that it resembles a couple of other similar works I’ve seen very recently.  During my work on the posting about Maria’s Throne Mirrors I wrote about Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Flemish master from Antwerp.  I also posted many of his non-mirror works too, but in fact refrained to reveal the painting with the mirror; this one:

The reason is not so much that its content has nothing to do with the thrones, but because its attribution is still questioned.  Some researchers argue that it is not van Aelst but his workshop, and other question any connection with the Antwerp school altogether.

Before I will go further with its attribution, one obvious observation is that this work is VERY similar to the ‘Shakespearean’ portrait.  It depicts the exact same subject, only using a slightly modified composition.

There are few differences here, too, and some of them are related to the mirror. Here it is not a hand-held one, but more a table one. It also (as in the case of Baldung) shows a skull in its mirror surface (which basically consists almost entirely of this skull.)

When I found this painting, I made a special search and discovered a couple more works, all strikingly similal to the ‘English’ one.

The latter two are certainly anonymous, but they are confidently described as belonging to the ‘German’ school (although it itself is a very vague term, and may mean they could be created anywhere from Cologne to Munich (although most likely lean to the North Rhine-Westphalia region).

The skulls in these two works are there, but less prominent, and the reflection in their mirror surfaces better resemble the ‘real worlds’ in front of these mirrors.

They also have the written text, the same on both paintings:


I didn’t find the exact source of this saying, so I have only my own version of the translation at the moment; it says something like “Beautiful Mirror Lets to See Own Beauty, but From Other (Back) Side Also Points to the Nothingness of It” (i.e., that this beauty is really nothing, Esse Nichil.)

[Notice that in one of the paintings the master confuses N and И, as if he doesn’t know Latin and merely copy the text as a picture, thus making mistakes.]

We can also spot that the women here are dressed very differently to the ‘English’ work (or to the pseudo-van Aelst one, for that matter).  Their dresses are also very rich and lavishly decorated, but the bearers are quite exposed – although we need to remember that it was not necessarily the real frivolity, but rather one of the accepted allegorical signs (or fertility, for example, or even of charity and selflessness (sic!).


When writing this text in Russian, in the Russian-language blog, I could refer to a very known fable, about the Dragonfly and the Ant, as a possible cultural reference for this painting. The fable tells about a thoughtless dragonfly (usually depicted as a woman), as opposed to a diligent ant, a man. Now, in English this connotation is lost, because the fable is known as The Ant and the Grasshopper, and doesn’t have any prominent reference to gender inequalities.

Worth noticing, that in the original (French) version the fable talks about la Cigale (cicada) and la Fourmi (and their depictions vary in visual cultures, they can be both female, or of mix genders).
Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that this reading of the painting, as a juxtaposition of an easy-going and almost frivolous (thus, sinful) female behaviour and more serious and thoughtful conduct of a man may not be very correct (though more widespread in some societies).

Here I would like to mentioned another painting that I already wrote about some time ago (see Atoning Efficacy of the Convex Mirrors):

This is the double portrait of Hans Burgkmair and his wife Anna, by (German!) Lukas Furtenagel, made around 1527. In my earlier text I tried to show that the meaning of this work is quite complex, it leans more toward Memento mory, but also has a lot of Christian (Protestant, and even more specific, Lutheran) connotations. In all these contexts the convex mirror is far more than merely a glass object capable to reflect, but a symbolic object representing the very Christ (‘the mirror of all mirrors’, according to Luther), and thus able to shed the ‘true light’, including the revelation of the coming futures.

Since this subject is becoming important for this posting too, it’s worth to recall some ideas about this ‘Memento mori’ meme. I wrote about its shifting meaning, when talking about this portrait byFurtenagel, but perhaps need to elaborate further.

There is an illusion that if we say ‘Memento mori’, we solve all the puzzles of interpretation (of this ‘English’ portrait and other, too). This is indeed, the illusion, because the meaning of the saying was seen very differently in different cultures and ages. Every time we need to elaborate further and explain what ‘exactly’ is this meaning in the given context.

In fact, in some world-views, the saying has no particular meaning at all. Referring to Ancient Egypt I was writing about very recently (see Mirrors’R’Suns) we can assume that these people would miss the point of such a reminder entirely: “Of course I remember about my after-death life, I always do, just look at the tomb I am building for that!”

The legendary version of the origin of Memento mori says that those were the words one Roman general demanded to be said to him from time to time, and who assigned a soldier (variant, a slave) who should accompany him everywhere to do so.

But what this said general had to be awaken to, when hearing these words? The ultimate value of any Roman citizen was to serve to the eternal glory of Rome, and everyone only a limited, counted number of days for this task. Thus, any indulgence into personal business would detract diminish time otherwise allocated to the main goal. The frequent reminder would be handy to have.

But let’s consider a more contemporary example of Memento mori, the famous speech by Steve Jobs.

In many ways the meaning of his words is the exact opposite to the one of Romans. Jobs suggests to ignore all these social obligations and norms imposed on you by the world and instead focus on your own unique personal goal – Follow Your Heart! – and dedicate all available time to that.

But personal goals may vary widely, and one would spend all his life to change the world for better (whatever this means), while others would simply follow their immediate, very earthly desires; Carpe Diem is another known expression in this case.

Therefore, the reminder itself, the kick one gets to stop waisting time and instead focus on wasting time on something else is not really defining the context of this new ‘something else’. The new, ‘proper’ goal has to be defined by another tools dependant on the context of the time and place.

If we return to our own context, of the Memento mori portrait with the mirror, it seems to be positioned somewhere between civic Rome and highly individualised California; and may not even on the same imaginary curve but on some sort orthogonal dimension to that.  The world-view developed by Christianity has created a very interesting proposition for the eschatological (ἔσχατον, end-time-ish) problems. Again, I wrote about these issues here and there, but feel that I need to compile it here in one place.

Let’s have a look at the famous triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, known as The Braque Family Triptych:

It was created more than a hundred years earlier than our ‘English’ portrait (circa 1452), but may serve as a good benchmark for the theme. Allegedly, the triptych is known as the first example of using the skull as a visual sign of Memento mori (before it was used only in the context of the Crucifixion scenes, as the Esse homo).

I wrote ‘triptych’ but you don’t see any triptych yet. These are the outer panels, and how the triptych looked when closed, presenting a very powerful Memento mori. The quote on the right panel is also from Ecclesiastes:

О mors quam amara est memoria tua homini pacem habenti in substantiis suis. Viro quieto et cuius viae directae sunt in omnibus et adhuc valenti accipere cibum (1 O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that hath peace in his possessions! 2 To a man that is at rest, and whose ways are prosperous in all things, and that is yet able to take meat! – Ecclesiasticus XLI: 1–2)

Then, and when the viewers is properly awakened, the triptych does tell about where and the energy should be spent:

The meaning of Memento mori here is to follow the teaching of You Know Whom, and hopefully secure your place in the Paradise. The meaning of ‘death’, therefore, is not even your own personal, physical dying, but a chance to be doing it forever in the Hell.

[A small side note here, since we are talking about this triptych. It was interesting for me to again discover an interesting World Sphere hold by Christ, that looks more metallic than glass but that depicts in its reflection –  a door? a window? – that are opened by the Saviour.

(nb: I wrote ‘again’ meaning that I keep collecting these ‘World Spheres’, particularly made of glass, and plan to write about them too, when I will get more materials).

If we forget about this Christian anchoring, many paintings depicting ‘women with mirrors’ can be completely misinterpreted, exactly as the examples of ‘vanity’, of narcissistic, self-admiring behaviour that can result in multiple troubles for women and in general make them even more ‘sinful’ as they are by default, as stated by the Christian theology.

But as I am trying to show, the ‘mirror’ may have meant something completely different. It is both a tool for self-awakening (this makes it very similar to the treatment of ‘mirrors’ in Buddhism and, partly, Islam) and also a reference to the ultimate goal of such awakening, that is, becoming closer to Christ.  In some situation the ‘mirror’ is to be read as Christ himself.

I wrote about one such striking case already, when telling about the story of Martha and Mary (see M & M Inside Out – only M&M here means these very Martha and Mary, not Memento mori.)

Of corse, this work by Caravaggio is very often referred as Vanity (and Mary is portrayed as a flighty creature, and not as the Christ’s bride, as originally intended).

Here is another work, whose author is considered to be a follower of Caravaggio:

The painting is dates 1630-s and is officially called “Truth Presenting a Mirror to the Vanities of the World”. The woman with the scales is a widely used allegory of the Truth (we see its use already in the City of the Ladies of Christine de Pizan, where the Queen of Reason appears with a mirror).   The scales are also the symbol of the Last Judgement (and notice the flare of the window’s light in the mirror’s upper corner).

Another painting, by the French master Trophime Bigot is also often referred as Vanity, but agin, it seems that it means something different, having in mind the complex meaning of candle in religious context (both short, transient, soon to be ended life, but also devotion and sacrifice.

And since I started to talk about ‘candles’, it worth recalling many paintings by Georges de La Tour (see Candlelit Repentance with Mirrors, and Skulls), that again are rarely seen as something more than vanitas.

The choice of interpretational framework become even more difficult with time. When contemporary viewers sees this painting Mattia Preti, he rarely questions its naming as Vanity (c.1630):

However, if to remember the possible connotation related to mirrors as self-awakening and guiding tools, the same portrait can be read as Making Life Choices with the help of the mirrors.  An interesting aspect of this painting is another choice, of the mirror’s design.  We see here a handheld mirror, that also looks like a convex one – which makes it very archaic for the times with the portrait was created, well into the 17th century.

When I write here about ‘vanity’, and especially when I say that something is NOT about vanity, it may sound a bit enigmatic, and I feel that I need to explain it a bit more too.

Even the most basic piece on wikipedia starts from the complexity of the term, and its historicity:

“Vanity is the excessive belief in one’s own abilities or attractiveness to others. Prior to the 14th century it did not have such narcissistic undertones, and merely meant futility. The related term vainglory is now often seen as an archaic synonym for vanity, but originally meant boasting in vain, i.e. unjustified boasting; although glory is now seen as having an exclusively positive meaning, the Latin term gloria (from which it derives) roughly means boasting, and was often used as a negative criticism.”

We went to Sienna this summer, and I managed to see one of the first ‘mirrors on fresco’, the famous work by Ambrogio Lorenzetti called Allegory of Good and Bad Government, in Palazzo Pubblico. Among the ‘bad’ governors we see Vanaglory, with the mirror:

Below is a bigger context of the scene, with other ‘bad guys’:

Basically, vanity has always been condemned behaviour, yet for different reasons (and also different types of behaviour would  fall into this category in different times.) In some of the cases, mirrors were seen as a part of this vanity behaviour, related to self-admiration and self-glorification. However, not all mirrors, and and specifically not all ‘women with mirrors’ should be automatically seen as the manifestations ‘vanity’.

And yet, this moralising and judgemental attitude became prevailing with time, and the majority of works indeed became misogynistic, rather than generally existential and humanistic. Below is an etching by the late-Renassiance Italian master Jacopo Ligozzi, obviously called Vanity (c.1590)

I also think that the relationship between these two attitudes is more complex that progressivistic progression, as Peter Hewitt, the author of the original posting, assumes.  At least concerning the mirrors, and their perception and use,  I would describing is always ambivalent attitude, where negative feelings of suspicion and condemnation have been always interwoven with admiration and even worship. Some ages ago I tried to describe it as ‘Mirror Cycles‘, referring to these ongoing alterations of their meaning in culture.

The damnation didn’t stop with at the times of Shakespeare, of course, even in Western Europe it lasted up until the beginning of 20th century, and remained present even after the Christianity lost its omnipotence. Look at this drawing by Charles Allan Gilbert, created in 1892;   All is still Vanity (and skulls are still in the mirrors):

Few final observations, on music and the notes. In the original posting they are presented as the signs of education and status: the woman is described as “struming a lute – a symbol of learning, harmony and pleasure”.  Music was indeed sees as an intellectual and God-pleasing endeavour. Yet it has also been seen as the example of useless and often frivolous entertainment (and sound itself understood as the ultimate manifestation of transience and ephemerality).


Musical instruments and notes – but also books and maps – will became indispensable attributes of the scenes depicting ‘vanity’. Look, for example, at the paintings by Jan Molenaer, Dutch master of the Golden Age. The one above, called Young Lady with a Mirror, or The Allegory of Vanity (1633), has all the signs of the deprecated behaviour (also including the bubble blowing, another example of useless, yet time-consuming activity).

Yet we have another painting, by the same author, depicting music as a respectful, even decorous undertaking: see his Family Portrait (1635):

)(  )(  )(

To conclude, what do we have at the end?

– The painting itself is interesting, so than you for sharing it.

– Its connection with the sonnet by Shakespeare seems fairly arbitrary for me; they both have ‘mirrors’, but talk about different things.

– The connection of the work with the one by Hans Baldung is really off the mark (plus there are some factual mistakes). By the way, there are two panels by Baldung that are much more related to this allegory, namely his own Allegories – 

though I have to remind that people still debate the allegories of what these works are).  Worth noticing that here we again see a very prominent skull embedded in the mirror:

– Whether it is Vanity, or Memento mori – or a Protestant (Lutheran) depiction of Christ remains to be open, I assume. My whole posting is about these questions (and I rarely end up with the definite answers).


Speaking about the role of woman in society, and the perception of this role by the society (and by the women themselves)… well, this remains to be as complicated and controversial as ever, I think. We witnessed the shirtgate scandal right during the time when I was writing this posting – and that among  many other ‘things’. As a reminder of it all, I will post here a self-made cartoon:


In the genre of ‘home work for the reader’, I will also post an interesting work by another Dutch master,Jacques de Gheyn II, where you can interpret all its symbolisms yourself (including the flare in the window):

Jacques de Gheyn II  – Vanitas Still Life (1603)

Moving to more contemporary matters, I would conclude this posting with one of the works by Michelangelo Pistoletto:

Michelangelo Pistoletto – Mirror Coffin (1994)


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