Prudence at her Toilette

Have I ever written about the tombs here yet?  – thought I. Or may be more specifically, the tombs that are somehow related to the mirrors? The only thing that comes to my mind in this context is the Egyptian pyramids. They are the Tombs with big T, and ARE somewhat related to mirrors, as I tried to illustrate earlier – see Mirrors’R’Suns.

But even to expand the scope, and includes in this question not only tombs, but any sculptures in general, the result will be still rather disappointing, as I mostly write about 2D art here. The 3D pieces are rare, if not exceptional in this blog (and even if they occur, as in the cases of Kapoor or Louise Bourgeois, they are often non-representational.)

The tomb that I found (see below) has a chance to improve this situation dramatically:

A short historic introduction first.

The tomb is currently in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, in the French city Nantes. The cathedral is regarded as one of the oldest and most beatiful in the country (though technically speaking it was finished only in the 19th century. But the construction began in the 15th century, so yes, it’s fairly old. The ‘beauty’ factor is always subjective, and I can’t not comment myself, yet, we never manages to get there during our trips – and the pictures are not mine.)

The official title of the tomb is Tombeau de François II de Bretagne, and the person buried there is, natürlich, Francis II, the Duke of Brittany (but also both of his wives. Francis II was not exactly the most prominent ruler of this time, on the contrary, his was a fairly average dutchship under the umbrella of the Louis XI’s reign. They were allies and enemies interchangeably, and run a war later La Guerre folle (Mad War, also known as the Stupid War, but which war isn’t?)  Francis’ primary goal was to preserve the independence of Brittany, but as we know he didn’t succeed.

When Francis died in 1488, he did’t leave any male heirs and so it was daughter who inherited the throne, and became famous Anne of Brittany, first the Duchess and then actually the Queen of France, after her (slightly enforced) marriage with Charles VIII. The games of thrones par excellence.

[Interestingly, but Anne of Brittany already appeared in this blog, when I was writing about my rendez-vous with Derick Baegert’s mirrors. In this posting I have shown the illumination by some Jean Perréal depicting an example of a mirror-like medallion; the lady in this miniature is the very Anne of Brittany.


In 1505 Anna has decided to commemorate her father and commissioned a construction of this deluxe tomb. The general design was done by the same Jean Perréal, and the sculptures were made by Michel Colombe, one of the famous sculptors of the time – who was also supplied by marble for the statues from the very Carrara!

The tomb was completed in 1507 and initially installed in a chapel of the church of Carmelites (because the cathedral’s construction was far from completion). Much later, already during the French revolution, the tomb was disassembled and hidden, since there was a real threat that anti-royalist mobs would destroy it – as in fact they did with the chapel itself.  After some while the tomb was reestablished, this time already in the cathedral where it stands till today.

The tomb is made as a large rectangular sarcophagus, with the figures of Francis and his second wife, Margaret of Foix, placed on its lid (I have learned that this type of sculptures is called effigy (and this specific version, gisant.)  Old drawing also shows that initially there was no fence around the tomb:

However, it is not the king or his queen that were most interesting for me, but the statutes of four ladies standing in the corners of the tomb. Even more specifically, only one of them, and here is why:

The picture above shows that the woman holds a mirror – though the view is a bit hindered by the recently erected fence. The picture below shows a better view on the mirror:

My guess is that the fence was installed in 2007, for the 500th anniversary of the tomb, and so we still can find the pictures of the statues without any hindrance.

Besides the mirror itself, the picture above also demonstrates one of the best ‘mirror cocoons’ in art history, but this time also 3D. As I said, I haven’t been to the cathedral myself yet, but from the pictures I have it’s clear that marble carving is extremely nuanced, to the extent we can nearly see the separate hairs of her hair-dress.

The details of the fabric and the braids of her dress are also very elaborated.

but here we also see very well the object she holds in her right hand, the compass; to be honest, not exactly the most expected thing in the context of a tomb. I’d like to also note that the mirror’s design somewhat resembles the one standing in the studies of Christin de Pizan, and I also have seen, in other manuscripts, the examples of mirrors very similar to this one. I assume that this model did allow rotation of the upper part with a convex mirror, so that the mirror can be used both as a desk one and hand-held.

I found only one pictures, seemingly very old one, where we can see the lady with the mirror visible in full length – where we also see the she is stepping on something like – a snake? or a small dragon?

All the above pictures are very interesting and already enigmatic enough to awaken a desire to learn more about this sculpture. But then you see this:

This picture allows to realize, shockingly, that the woman has another face on the back of her had, of some old wizard. If not knowing beforehand about this second face, one can face (sic!) a pretty petrifying scene in the cathedral’s dark halls:

The sculptures are nearly as high as the real people and made very realistically, and assume that the encounter can be pretty macabre.

I would love to read the stories of people who were discovering this two-face sculpture; the tomb is very famous and there should be diaries or may be even the stories or novels where it is described. The real diaries would be much more interesting, of course, and in an ideal situation it would be great to compare the thoughts and feelings of people who lived, say, a hundred years ago with the four centuries old ones.

We live in a different age, with a particular cultural (and media) landscapes, and so my ‘free associations’ are somewhat predetermined:

Quirinus Quirrell is not exactly the most charming person, but when he hosts Lord Voldemort, the two-face chimera becomes one of the major horrors of the entire movie. In this context the impression I am getting when looking at this otherwise lovely woman becomes rather sickly.

What has she done? to deserve such a fate? Who, and how has possessed her body, and most likely her soul as well? And what is the role of the mirror in this story? Or, if to formulate all these questions in a less melodramatic way, what was the source of inspirations for Msgrs. Perréal and Colombe when designing and then making this sculpture?  How was the commission formulated, and whether their execution was original – or pretty standard for the people who then watched at this tomb five hundred years ago?

And to start with, who – or what – is actually depicted here?


From this moment I will have to become more wordly, and less pictorial.

The woman with a mirror, together with three other figures, represent the so called Cardinal Virtues, namely Justice, Temperance, Courage and Prudence (the latter is the one with the mirror).  In a very informative article about this tomb in wikipedia (see Tomb of Francis II, Duke of Brittany) one can find fairly good pictures of other three ladies together with their iconographic descriptions.

I quote here only the part related to Prudence, who: ”

  • holds in her right hand a compass, a symbol of the extent of any action
  • and in her left hand a mirror, reflecting every thought back to be contemplated and assessed before the wisdom of the ages.

The figure has two faces:

  •  at the back is an old man implying the wisdom of the past.
  • at the front is the young woman looking to the future.

The mirror is also that of truth: she sees the image of the prince’s weaknesses and, knowing herself, can better correct his conduct.

At her feet is a snake: “Be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16)”.

We also learn that the sculpture is considered a portrait of the very Anne of Brittany, of whom a contemporary poet said Prudence was her chief virtue.

There are already a few interesting things in this quote, and there will be even more later, and here I have to admit that this whole posting will be about Prudence.  And so it makes sense to start defining the terms (or at least start approaching these definitions).

As with every other moral and ethical concept, Prudence is complex and often perplexed. Plus, this complexity only grows with time, since we have to add more and more hermeneutic loops, both trying to understand the ‘original’ meaning as well as see its evolution through series of (mis)interpretations. The transformation of meanings is fuelled further by translations to various different languages; ‘lost in translation’ is a good expression to remember in this context.

Unfortunately, all these hermeneutic exercises tend to transform into really boring, if not depressing games of words.  For example, if to be pedantic, I’d have to note that the quote from Matthew is not correct. Originally it goes as “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”

The word “shrewd” does not really mean  “wise”, its meaning is closer to be “astute”, or “perspicacious”, or in other words be “observant, perceptive, having a ready insight into and deep understanding of things.” And ideally one would need to go into the thickets of Biblical studies, and double-check what was the ‘actual‘ word used in the Hebrew Bible.

The concept of four main human virtues was known already to Romans, and even Greeks (and perhaps even older than that. But it has appeared in a more modern, and also Christian, version in Europe thanks to the works of some Tommaso from the Italian town of Aquino, who became known as Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous Christian theologian of the Middle Ages.

{To be really well-grounded and in-depth as I pretend to be, there should be a series of five or six long postings about Thomas, his life and his ideas, and also the ideas that impacted him. In an ideal world I would also love to learn more about the role of mirrors in his life – i.e., what kind of mirrors he used (if any), what kind of mirrors were used by people around him, and and what sort of beliefs they had by then about the mirrors. For example, how likely that he wouldn’t see his own face in any mirror at all during his life?   The story about his encounter with the prostitute hired by his brother to seduce him is quite indicative, and hints that Thomas may indeed have had a very, let’s say, uninformed ideas about his own appearance. But since I hardly have time even for one posting, those ‘five or six’ are totally for the next life, and so I will proceed with massive shortcuts.}

The concepts of Four Virtues (that Thomas called Cardinal) were described in his most famous work, so called Summa theologiae, or simply Summa. Some claim that it is the most influential Christian book after the Bible. Started around 1265, it remained unfinished even ten years later, in 1274, when Thomas died, but already during his life made significant impact on the minds of his contemporaries, and its influence only grew in the next few centuries . 

The origin of these Four is complex, as Thomas borrowed something from the antique sources (including Aristotle), but then also mixed with the ideas of Christian thinkers, such as Saint Austin, Boethius, and many others. At the end he extended the original set of four, adding three new specifically Christian virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The exact nature, meaning and significance of each of those virtues had been described, debated and elaborated in thousands volumes since then. As often happens this day, the article in wikipedia may provide a good starting point, and I am not planning to re-write it here.

Prudence, however, is a bit exceptional, and I need to write a word or two about this concept, because it will be difficult to see its connection with mirrors without at least a basic intro.  As I wrote earlier, Thomas didn’t invent the idea of Prudence, we can see its traces already in the works by Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics (300 BCE, just for the record!) he introduces the concept of Phronesis (φρόνησις in Greek). Below is a long quote from the Nicomachean Ethics (of course, already translated to English, where this word became known as ‘prudence’):

“We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort of people we call prudent.  Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous…But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable…So…prudence cannot be science or art;  not science [episteme] because what can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done at all), and not an art [techne] because action and production are generically different.  For production aims at an end other than itself;  but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely doing well.

What remains, then is that it is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.  We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management of households or states.”

This is not exactly an example of the most clear and non-ambivalent definition.  From one side we see an ability of ‘right deliberation’ (which is clearly a cognitive function). On the other side there is reference to the ‘the management of households or states’.  The latter resulted in a widespread understanding of phronesis as something ‘useful and pragmatic’. ‘Practical reason’ is often used as a synonym of prudence.

I have a feeling that the true meaning of the word is somewhat lost, partly due to translation, but mainly because of time and numerous attempts to alter the meaning into something else. I don’t have a chance to put here a full proof (plus, it was already made by many other people, including such titans as Martin Heidegger or Hans-Georg Gadamer, among others).

In short, prudence can be understood as a capacity to see the future very clearly, bordering with clairvoyance – but not as a magical or mystical capability, but a result of very quick and accurate modelling of multiple future scenarios and their possible outcomes. And then, when equipped with the information about all these multiple futures, the ability to make optimal decisions that maximise the value to be gained at the end (here the ‘value’ should be seen not only as a immediate personal gain, but broader human advancement; ‘happiness’ would be the word used by Aristotle himself).

Here I am not alone, and many people think in the same, or similar direction:

Prudence is normally conceived of as an intellectual virtue. [Psychologist Vincent] Jeffries defined it as “the use of reason to correctly discern that which helps and that which hinders realizing the good”. When applied to goal striving, prudence is foresight, future-mindedness, and the reasoned pursuit of long-term goals” (Nick Haslam).

But prudence is not only about the future – the past is equally important for a ‘proper’ prudence to function. In fact, the past and the future are not even two separate entities,  they are intrinsically connected and one does not exist without the other.  Prudence works as a permanent, non-stop evaluation of the possible futures, but then also as an ongoing evaluation of the only one of them that became the present (and that quickly transforms into the past). And the again an evaluation of the new futures, and so on, and so forth. Both ‘future’ and ‘past’ mean not only short-term, proximal developments, but also long-term ones, being it Long Futures or Long (ago) Pasts.


There was enough words, let’s go back to pictures. This is (allegedly) the Allegory of Prudence as understood by Titian (c. 1565):

This a very enigmatic paintings, and different authors offer different interpretations of all its possible meaning (the very basic introduction into its complex semantic web can be found here – Allegory of Prudence) that can also direct you to more reading, on why three faces, or if the left one is Titian himself, why these animals and many other interesting things.

But – there is no mirror in this painting, and I have to skip all these discussion (also because I still can’t finish the stories about the works of this master that do have mirrors, despite I wrote about Titian more frequently than about any other Renaissance painter.)

But there is one feature of this painting – namely, its triple-head – that does resemble the two-headed Prudence I was describing earlier. And of course its famous epigram – EX PRAETERITO/PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT/NE FUTURA ACTIONẼ DETURPET (which can be translated as “From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions”).

{There is very interesting, and important nuance in this quote, in the way it describes the take on the future. It doesn’t say “Build Great Future!” or “Let’s make things better!” or any other slogan of this kind; it just says “Don’t spoil the future”. Don’t do the ‘right things’, just do a little bit less wrong ones.


Going back toPrudence, there is another interesting overtone of the meaning here:

“Its [Prudence’s] function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any concrete circumstances. It has nothing to do with directly willing the good it discerns. [But] prudence has a directive capacity with regard to the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise. Without prudence bravery becomes foolhardiness; mercy sinks into weakness, and temperance into fanaticism.”

The knowledge about the future is an action itself, but it assigns the meaning to any action, and makes good or bad, smart or stupid, useful or harmful.  Not surprisingly, Prudence was considered auriga virtutum, a charioteer of all other virtues who would look forward and guide the rest.

I will come back to the meaning of the concept, and how it was depicted in various art works. But before that it makes sense to briefly recall what have been already written in this blog about Prudence.

1. The most recent (although already half-a-year old) story was about cassones (see Skeletons in the closets, now with the mirrors). Now I understand that the two chest depicted all four main virtues, including Prudence – with the mirror.  Just for the record, the cassone is dated circa 1490:

The girl has one head, but two snakes; but I will speak about snakes later.


One of the very first postings in this blog was about one early work by Bellini – see Double Binding Mirrors of Giovanni Bellini (interestingly enough, it was also about furniture, although in that case it was about retablo, not cassone, and the work was also made around 1490s). One of the four enigmatic figures (woman with a mirror) is often interpreted as Prudence.


Prudence was also described, and depicted in the Iconology by Cesare Ripa (see Reflective Iconology); both illustrations and the texts from this book are most relevant to the topic of this post, so it worth to show them here again:

The first two illustrations are very similar, they are from the two different versions of the same Italian edition. There is one remarkable slip of tongue here, as the second of them was actually described as Providence, not Prudence. But in general we see roughly the same iconography – one mirror, one snake on an arrow, two heads.

The third picture (from the first British edition of this book) is in many way similar to the first two. The only different is that Prudence is sitting here, not standing. But the description of this illustration has a significant deviation: the ‘snake’ is referred as Remora, a fish, and the provided explanation does not exactly clarify the situation:  ‘that stops a Ship, not to delay doing Good, when Time serves’. Hmm.

I have to add that I didn’t even try to better understand the meaning of Prudence and the role of mirrors in her life when posting these earlier stories. For me these were just yet another examples of ‘women with mirrors’. Therefore now they just add few more pieces to the puzzle, but not necessarily make the task of solving it easier.


For example, a simple question of when the mirrors became associated with Prudence doesn’t have a simple answer yet – I simply don’t know. Did it happen already when the mirrors were still made of metal? Or did it occur only when the mirrors became glass ones? I don’t even ask why they became connected. The common reasoning is that Prudence requires the quality known as γνῶθι σεαυτόν, nosce te ipsum, or know thyself – or in other words, reflection; and so it needs a mirror.

But if the reflective capacity was presented as one of the key qualities of Prudence from the very beginning, the mirror was not present as its attribute, and appeared only much later. At some point I decided to track the earliest mirror of Prudence.

To start somewhere, I decided the look at the early Italian illustrations (also remembering that Summa theologiae was written in 1265-70.) Here is what I very soon found.

Below is the picture of not remarkably looking church in Padua, known as Scrovegni Chapel, or sometimes as Arena Chapel, because it was built on the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre. The church was completed in 1305, only 25 years after the first edition of theSumma theologiae appeared.)

Current exterior is not so remarkable also because it is, in fact, quite new; or rather the old building was somehow ‘wrapped’ into a new brick layer and thus looks pretty modern.

But there is another wrapping that is happening here, which also made the church a kind of Art Mecca for the generations of painter from all over Europe. Entire interior of the church is covered by the frescos of Giotto. In a way, it is one huge painting folded into the building (or wrapped around by the walls.)

People who’ve been there say that the frescos are stunningly beautiful, but we still have to go there to witness this fact itself (and so I am using the pictures made by other people). The one below shows a few rows of frescos, including the lowest one, with the less bright frescos painted between the marble plates.

The content of the main frescos is fairly typical for a church, they illustrate the life of Christ, including the Passions. But it’s not only the story about ‘what has happened already’, but also the statement about the futures; the main fresco of the church depicts the scene of Final Judgement and there even some images of life in the New Jerusalem and the life in the Future Heaven.

The content of these monochrome frescos at the bottom is very different. On one side of the hall Giotto portrayed the Seven Virtues. The picture below shows all of them together, although in reality they are placed a bit further apart from each other.

For that occasion Giotto decided to also portray the Seven Vices – Desperation, Envy, Infidelity, Injustice, Wrath, Inconstancy and Foolishness (notice that these are not the Seven Major Sins).

Here I put very small pictures of both the Virtues and the Vices, and the article in wikipedia (Seven Vices and Seven Virtues of the Scrovegni Chapel) shows relatively large copies.

The picture below shows how these two series are juxtaposed in the church :

Of course of all the virtues I am mostly interested in Prudence. She is the only figure that is depicted not in full size, but only half bust, and beyond a cathedra:

She holds a small mirror on one hand, and something like a pen in the other (although it could also be a compass). But she also has second face on the back of her head, at least we see something looking like a beard.

The mirror she holds is seemingly made of glass, and we see its convex surface. Speaking about the mirrors that Thomas himself may have in his possession and looked into, this one could be a good prototype of those.

The panels are rather large, about 120 cm in hight, and he would wanted, Giotto could easily also paint a reflection too, for example, of the woman’s face. This wouldn’t be correct in terms of optics, we shouldn’t see her face under this angle, but it would be one of the earliest reflection in art history.

<small tangent>

This fresco doesn’t have anything to do with Prudence, but is related to Giotto. And since I start writing about the works of this master, it makes sense to also put the story here.

There is another fresco in this church (you can actually see in the very first picture I am showing above, in the upper-left corner):

What we see here is the scene of Annunciation of Saint Anna (mother of Saint Mary, and the grand-mother of Christ).

The things that resemble mirrors (I often describe them as ‘mirrors’) are frequently depicted in the scenes of Annunciation of Saint Mary, and I wrote about them numerous times (this is the most recent post on the subject and you can find more links to other postings there) – but in all previous cases these were the works of either Flemish or German masters.

Until now I didn’t find the ‘mirrors’ in the scenes of Annunciation of Saint Anna (though I do occasionally find them in the scenes of of the birth of her daughter). Moreover, I often find not one but two ‘mirrors’ in such scenes – the most recent case was about the Birth of the Virgin by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, and the classical example of such double mirror is the panel by Jan de Beer.

I have recently managed to go even further into the depths of the Christ’s genealogical tree, when I found the panels – with mirrors! – depicting his grand-grand-mother, Emerentia (whether she was Saint or nor is still being debated, I believe).  But again, this was the works by German master – see the story about the Wunderaltar in Dortmund.

But I have never seen such ‘religious’ mirrors in the works by Italian masters. I have, of course, immediately created a conspiracy theory, that they used to be there at some point but were erased or even destroyed by the Vatican’s censorship. Unless, that is, such rare exceptions as this frescos by Giotto that for some reasons remains as they were originally created.

What I mean here is a this tiny white object that hangs on a wall in front of Saint Ann, and that resembles a small convex mirror. It may not be even a ‘mirror’, in a sense that it shouldn’t even necessarily be able to perfectly reflect the light – it could be just a glass, or a polished piece of quartz, or even a marble ‘lens’. In all these cases this object could still bear its symbolic, sacral function – the exact meaning of which I still don’t know, by the way; my bet is that is something in the area of God’s Eye, Oculus Domini, but I could be totally wrong here).

To figure out what it is exactly I need to dig much deeper, and through the sources that I don’t have an access at the moment, so I would park this issue for a moment).

</small tangent>


I don’t have much resources to search for the early (14-15th centuries) Italian frescos; some of them can be found in various art archives, but many of them are still parts of the buildings, churches, cathedrals etc, and so you would need to literally go there in person to check if they have ‘mirrors’ or not. In this situation I didn’t have much hopes to find yet another early Prudence with a mirror

I was helped by the very same Giotto!

When looking through his other works I bumped into another very famous masterpiece by this master, so called Franciscan Allegories, the frescos that cover the dome of the Basilica of St. Francis in Italian town Assisi. Here is how the church looks from outside:

and here is the magnificent frescos on the dome’s ceiling:

These frescos were created circa 1320, fifteen years later than the ones in Scrovegni Chapel, by much more experienced master able to ideate – and implement – much more complex creations.

The picture above shows all four quadrants of the dome: the bottom one depicts Francis of Assisi himself, the upper one (turned upside down for us) shows the Allegory of Poverty, the right one, the Allegory of Chastity, and the left one, the Allegory of Obedience:

Among many other interesting figures in this fresco (just look at the centaurs!) we also find yet another depiction of Prudence, appropriately two-headed, with a compass though without the snakes.

She does held a mirror, too, even if in a very strange manner (she wouldn’t be able to see her own reflection). There is another interesting construction in front of the woman (or should I say, women?), something like a gong (?) or may be another mirror.

Worth noticing that Prudence here also wears a golden crown – or perhaps a hexagonal halo, shared between its two heads. Despite her weird two-headed appearance, we Prudence in the most worshiped divine companies.

I don’t think that Thomas was describing in any way the physical appearance of his virtues (for him they were what we would call today ‘psychological traits’, mere concepts. There should have been other source of inspiration for Giotto and other master, defining how they were supposed to depict this or that virtue.

Here I have a problem, of course. Giotto di Bondone for the Italian (religious) art is as important and pivotal figure as Jan van Eyck would be for the Flemish art; in many ways the world is split into ‘before’ and ‘after’ Giotto. However, it would be also wrong to assume that these masters started completely from scratch. There should have been some predecessors, of course, both in terms of content and technique, we just don’t know much about them. In case of Giotto we have only a few semi-legendary stories about his own life and can only guess about the roots of this genius art pivot.


At this line I say good bye to Giotto and his mirrors – unless we accept the attribution of the following relief to the master:

I can’t find much information about this work. Judging by her clothes, and especially the headwear, the lady is from 1360s-1390s, many years after Giotto. Yet it is the very Prudence, of course, with two heads and a small mirror in her hand – but also already a snake.

This seems to be the earliest work where we see Prudence with a snake. Here the snake doesn’t have any arrow, and also tied in a knot of some sort.

I found another relief with Prudence, attributed to some Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, a not so well-known sculptor of the 14th century from Florence  (I assume the relief is still there, but I am missing the exact information).

Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio Prudence (1368)

Here we again have a full set – including the snake and the mirror, but the woman also has the wings, and is depicted with a starry sky on a background, making her a somewhat divine creature. The second head is also present, but it is shown at the bottom, beneath the figure, thus transforming a more usual juxtaposition ‘left=past vs right=future’ into a less frequently used one, ‘below=past vs above=future’.


An epitome work in this series, of Prudences and their Mirrors, can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Displayed here is a large multi-part work by Piero del Pollaiolo (also known as Piero Benci) that depicts all the seven main Cardinal Virtues.  These seven panels are dated circa 1470s, and initially had to be a part of large altarpiece group.

We’ve been to Uffizi, and I’ve seen the panel but by then the gallery didn’t allow taking pictures, so I have to use someone’s else bootleg picture to show these art works.

The 1470s is already an entirely different age compared to the times of Giotto: the materials are different (the panes are made by tempera on wood), the style, composition etc. Yet the iconography of Prudence has not been changed much: we see the same triad, the Girl, the Mirror, the Snake.    


The design of the mirror is already very different, the mirrors are not held in hands but placed on tables, using different stands. Here the woman hold the mirror in her right hand but it’s clearly a table mirror.

Does she have a second head (or face)? Difficult to say, I some some facial features in her hairdo, but I can be biased. The reflection in the mirror could have helped, but the copy of the painting I have does not allow me to say with any certainty.  It is obviously not an accurate optical reflection in any way, but more a refelction of the artist’s intention to show something in this mirror.


Another hundred years went, and we see another Prudence, by Girolamo Macchietti – Allegory of  Prudence (c. 1570s):

The set is nearly the same – minus the design of the mirror, of course. Plus, we see the second head very clearly here.

I may only notice that the ‘mirror cocoon’ is already well depicted here; previously we saw more or less schematic depictions of mirrors, while here it’s a very realistic interaction of a ‘user’ with this ‘psychological technology’:

About this time the iconography of Prudence became a canon, and we see it described in exactly same way in the Iconology by Cesare Ripa, for example.

It also helps to correct the misattributions very easily. For instance, the following work by Peter Candid is often described as  Allegory of Vanity. Wrongly, of course, since we see here all the attributes of Prudence:

Peter Candid Allegory of Vanity Prudence (c.1590)

Peter Candid was Flemish by origin (his true name is Peter de Witte), but he went to Florence very early in his life, and became a painter in Italy.  Candid was his artistic nickname, and later the new surname; at the end of his life he moved to Munich (!) where now there is a metro station called after him, Сandidplatz.

I am mentioning these geographical details as well. This posting started in France, but then I found the roots of this concept, and its iconography in Italy. I will have to limit this posting mainly by the Italian masters, and cover ‘the rest’ later on, in a separate posting.

When I say master, I mean not only strictly painters. The image of Prudence was depicted using a very wide range of media. For examples, this is a maiolica tondo made around 1475 by Andrea della Robbia, a well-known master of ceramic sculptures from Florence:

The pictures does not allow to see it well, but this is a rather large work, with the tondo’s diameter about 160 cm. It once decorated the facade of a church, or someone’s house, most likely together with similar tondo’s of other virtues.


I have already shown the cassoni with the virtues (including Prudence, with the mirror and snakes), and here is another example, a detail from the cassone made by Apollonio di Giovanni di Tommaso around 1460s.

Apollonio di Giovanni Allegory of Prudence (end panel of a cassone) c.1460

This depiction of Prudence is very interesting. At first we see nearly identical set of attributes – the mirror, the snake (can’t see the second head, though). However, if we look closer, we see that it’s not a snake that she holds in her hand, but Cornu Copiae.

This is not a sole exception, there is a number of works where Prudence is depicted with this symbol of abundance and nourishment. See below the drawing by Federico Zuccari, an Italian Mannerist, dated circa 1578 and described as Prudence:

On one hand, it is a typical example of the semantic shift, a slip of meaning, as a call it, when one element is substituted by another one based on a completely latent characteristics (“there was something long and squirming there – and we have something long and ‘squirmin’ too!) There are many of these ‘slips’ in the story of Prudence.

But there is is also another aspect behind this substitution.

Earlier I was presenting Prudence as a sort of fore-sighting capability,a capacity to assess the possible futures and then select the ‘right’ one in the given circumstances. This interpretation may have some merit, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t others. In fact, the other interpretations were much more popular.

If we come back for a moment to the word games, we can see that in Dutch, for instance, Prudence is translated as ‘VoorzichtigheidThe word has some important parts – zicht, from ‘to see’, and voor – ‘ahead’, so in a sense it confirms my ideas. But the way the word is used by people is somewhat different, strictly speaking, it means attentiveness, but also carefulness, caution, wariness.

In German it is translated by a few words – ‘Klugheit‘ (mind, reasonableness), ‘Vorsicht‘ (attentiveness), and ‘Umsicht‘ (again closer to carefulness and caution).

The Slavic languages also provide interesting examples of translations (and re-interpretations) of the concept. In Polish Prudence is translated as ‘roztropność‘ (may be understood as agile, nimble), but also as ‘ostrożność‘ (literally caution).

In Czech one word used to translate Prudence is ‘obezřetnost’ – again close to carefulness, but another one is ‘prozíravost’, which is closer to sagacity, or forethought).

In Slovenian this is ‘preudarnost‘, in Bulgarian – ‘предпазливост‘ (=predpazlivost), and both are close to sagacity, too.

Some of these words are pointing to the collation of meaning close to what I was trying to present (‘looking ahead’), while others are very different. If you would google the word ‘prudence’ or ‘prudent’ today, you will see lots of links to various financial institutions. And indeed, in the modern finance prudence is one of the core concept: Good money manager is a prudent money manager.  It was exactly prudence that many banks and financial companies have missed recently, that most recently resulted in the financial crisis of 2007-8 (when Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch have failed, among others).

Not surprisingly, one of the oldest investment banks is called Prudential – and the logo of its UK branch still has the image of a girl with a mirror:

(A side note: how would you treat a shop that calls itself The Honest Shop?


I have recently found an interesting artifact, a coin issued by the mirco-state Andorra few years ago (for some reasons I always thought their currency is also euro; wrong, they use dinars, and the coin is worth ten of those).

The coin, made in a very unusual form, is called Prudence and it is decorated by the fragment of the Pierro del Pollaiolo’s panel:

It is a beautiful work minting-wise, no doubts, but all the complexity of the concept of Prudence are diminished to a mere pragmatic, monetary value. The only futuristic aspect that we can see (or rather assume) here is in the value of saving for the future.

Symbolic crossbreds similar to Prudence with the Cornucopia in her hand instead of a snake are absolutely not an exception. On the contrary, this is a very typical way of the evolution of meanings through history. Although it may look like a great simplification, the development of cultural memes can be compared to the one genes, where failures during DNA replication can lead to various mutations, brining in turn a chance for a spices to  develop new interesting qualities.

Let’s look, for example, at the Prudence by Marcantonio Raimondi, a known engraver from Bologna at the end of 15th – beginning of 16th century. It is thanks to him and his workshop many Europeans were able to see the famous works of Italian masters, at least in form of the reproductions.

The Prudence here does have a mirror and seemingly doesn’t have two heads. But its Snake evolved into a giant Dragon, and a Deer that we’ve also seen before became a formidable Lion:

Marcantonio Raimondi Prudence, with Lion and Dragon (1510)

As with many other similar transmutations, the etching poses many questions. Was it a personal whim of the master? Or a capricious commissioner lacking basic historic knowledge? Or may be possessing vast historical knowledge instead? In Ancient Greece it was the goddess Athens who was in charge of dealing with the future, but she was also known as a mistress of various mighty beasts (lions including).


Another interesting development that we see in this work is nudity (at least half-nudity) of Prudence. It’s unlikely that Thomas and many of his immediate followers would approve this way of depicting one of the main Christian virtues. But times change, and morals do, too.

In this context the Prudence by Giorgio Vasari looks almost too decent for the times:

Giorgio Vasari Allegorical Figure of Prudence (1541)

I would love to have a better copy of this work, to see what is depicted on the mirror’s handle, and to see its design in general.

There is a plentitude of new meanings (and new mirror tricks) is the famous Prudence by Lavinia Fontana, one of the first women who became professional artist (I think she was the very first woman elected to the Academy of Art in Rome).

Lavinia Fontana Allegory of Prudence (c.1590)

Lavinia was number one in many other things too, for example, she was one of the first female artist who started to portray naked female bodies. And nakedness galore in this version of Prudence, also multiplied by numerous mirror reflections. This portrait is also one of the first examples of depicting a mirror in another mirror!

The artists shows a compass and a globe as the signs of Prudence’e intelligence, but we see a dog rather than a deer, again indicating a shift of meaning (the dogs will be later present on many female portraits as symbols of female loyalty. But mirrors (in particularly the large one) also drag another attributes, an assortment of jewellery, for example, and with it, another cluster of meanings, such as Vanity. Because of these allusions to the Vanity theme, the work can be also read as a juxtaposition of Virtue and Vice.

It’s difficult to say if there is a second head (face) in this picture. But the capacity to look back is also expressed nevertheless, through the use of two mirrors allowing to look at your own back.


A few later works by Italian master demonstrate further progression toward baroque (or decline, depending on your taste preferences):

Prudence by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari  (c.1690) could be called modest…

… compared to the burlesque, phantasmagoric scenes by Luca Giordano:

Luca Giordano Allegory of Prudence (c.1680)

In this latter case the concept of Prudence becomes distributed: there is, of course, a central female figure, with a mirror and a snake on an arrow (and a deer):

But there are other figures too, conveying some other qualities of Prudence: for instance, the Elder with compasses and books, or the girl with the second face . There are also various flying figures, with a shield or a key, another attributes often related to Prudence.

And this wasn’t one exceptional painting, Luca Giordano was exceptionally prolific painter and his works can be found in nearly every large museum in Europe (the version below is now in the Museum of Fine Art in Houston.

Luca Giordano Allegory of Prudence (c.1682)

In these works the construct of Prudence is assembled from various blocks, similar to the Lego bricks:


I started this posting with a sculpture, and in France, and then almost all time was showing the paintings, and in Italy. Can we also find the Italian sculptures with Prudence? The answer is – of course, a plenty.

There are so many sculptures of Prudence that I could easily start a separate Tumblr or Pinterest. There is, in fact, a somewhat similar project on Wikimedia where people compile the examples of Statues of Prudence.

I will show below just a few  of them, the most famous ones.

The entombment of the Pope Paul III was commissioned to Guglielmo della Porta in 1549, immediately after the Pope’s death, but it was completed only in 1575, twenty five years later. It’s a pretty large and lavishly decorated marble construction in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though it’s not very clear why it took so long to build it.

There are two reclining female figures laying at its base, and one of them is Prudence:

The Prudence is a bit different here from the earlier versions. She doesn’t have a snake (instead she holds a book).  She is also much older compared to the otherwise young girls who usually represent this virtue. It is believed that her face resembles the of the sculpture’s own mother, and the one of a much younger girl laying next her is of his cousin. It’s very tempting to consider both of them representing Prudence, but the second lady is traditionally described as Justice.


There is another Prudence in the same Basilica, by some Giuseppe Lironi (1725), but I can’t say much about it. I found only one picture (below) that doesn’t allow to see if she has two faces/heads.


Here is another version, by Giovanni Baratta (1703-5); we miss the deer here but at least we have a forest stump:

When I was looking for the examples of the Italian 3D Prudences, I suddenly found a work that could work as primer for the very first Prudence I described in this posting, by Jean Perréal and Michel Colombe in Nantes.

This is the so called Portinari Chapel in Milano, built in 1460-68s to commemorate Saint Peter of Verona, who is also buried here. The entombment was designed by Giovanni de Pizan (also known as Giovanni di Balduccio). Here is a general view (I keep planning to visit Milano, but still didn’t make it there, and I have to show the pictures made by other people):

Similar to the tomb of Francis, the mausoleum of Peter of Verona is guarded by four virtues – including our Prudence (this time with the books, not a a compass):

She holds a tiny mirror in her right hand (though I didn’t find any traces of a snake or an arrow. But she has not two…

…but three heads!

I would love to dig deeper and learn more about this group, and ideally about its making-of process, but the sources available so far via the Internet are too shallow.


A few concluding notes.

A. The Snake

It is believed that originally it wasn’t a snake but a fish (it is called Remora, or a suckerfish, in the Iconologia by Cesare Ripa).  The meaning was that such a fish (not alone by in a flock) can slow down a fast ship.

The image (and the corresponding morale, Festina lente, ‘make haste slowly’) was used already in Ancient Rome. It became popular in the modern Europe after re-introduction by the famous Venetian humanist Aldus Manutius, who even made its personal seal in form of the anchor and a dolphin.

With time the anchor migrated into an arrow, and dolphin – into a fish (perhaps, initially en eel), and then into a snake (that in turn could evolve into a dragon). The meanings of the image have been changing accordingly – or better say, arbitrary.


B. The Heads

The story here is more complex. There is a chance that the image of two heads, one looking forward and one looking backward, has emerged ‘itself’ during the early Renaissance.

But some researchers suggest that this metaphor of ‘split personality’ was also borrowed from Ancient Rome (or even earlier), with its Janus, the god of the beginning and the end, the deity in charge of any transformation, who duties did, in fact, included looking at, and guarding the past and the future.


As I wrote earlier, I don’t think that Thomas Aquinas was much bothered with the pictorial representations of his virtues. Moreover, I believe that if he would be shown the first versions of the Prudence’s visualizations with the mirrors,  he would be very surprised: mirrors didn’t posses any particularly positive associations in his time (their use as scientific instruments started much later).

Here, for example, a fragment of the famous fresco The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, made by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena in 1338-39, that depicts Prudence:

Lorenzetti was an erudite, and he obviously familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas, including Summa Theologica, and if the text would allude in any way to the role of mirrors, he would use it too. Here we only see a compass or an astrolabe of some sort.

Or may be not? And she in fact does held a large convex mirror in her left hand, pointing to in by her finger?

Interestingly, but I have been to the the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna but I didn’t take any pictures of this part, of the Good Government

although I did manage to take few shots of the fresco with the Bad Governance, including its Vanagloria with her Mirror.

Sure, it is not allowed to take any pictures in this palace, but I would knew that there is also a ‘good mirror’ there, I would make some efforts to make at least a few secret shots.

Now I only have a picture of the book – which again I didn’t buy because it was mostly about ‘good guys’, and didn’t expect any mirrors in it! The filters of perception in action 😦

When I was writing this post in Russia, I made this mocking picture:


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