Prudence goes North

My last posting about Prudence may evolve in two different direction, forward and backward time-wise.

The latter option should start from the question why the contemporaries of Thomas Aquinas (for example, Giotto) have had decided to portray Prudence with a mirror. I could lead to interesting investigations into the use (and the meaning) of mirrors by the Ancient Romans, and may be even by the earlier cultures, say, by Etruscans. I also suspect that some inspirations could have been borrowed from the Byzantium art (of which I know next to nothing at the moment).

The former direction seems to be a bit more simple, and basically has to cover the developments of this iconography after the times I described (14-17 centuries) – but also somewhere else. The last posting was predominately about Italian art and it is of course very tempting to see how other art territories appropriated this theme.

In a way the answer is fairly predictable – what has happened in many way repeated the similar developments for any other idea spreading in space and time. It is first copied as is, but also inevitably modified, enriched (or distorted, depending on your taste) with certain local memes, and sometimes even totally altered. But this is too generic a description to be interesting, and I am here after the small nuances. So, let’s go for the details.

The drawing above is by Rubens, made around 1600s when the young painter made his first trip to Italy and learned (by copying) the works of the famous Italian masters – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

The female figure could be seen as the Vanity (or perhaps the Reason), but anyone who would read the previous entry should immediately recognise this woman as Prudence, due to the mirror she holds but mainly because of her distinctive two-face-ness. Where would Rubens copy this image, and whom from?

That’s where:

Above is only a central fragment of large fresco by Raphael; here is a larger piece:

And this is how the work looks in its total context:

These are not my pictures, I haven’t been to Vatican yet, where it decorates one of the halls, or Stanza in the Palace of the Popes. The Stanza della Segnatura was room where Popes were signing all the bulls and other documents (perhaps it is still used for this purpose). It is in this room we finds another famous fresco by Raphael, The School of Athens, with many philosophers of antiquity, including Aristotle (ironically, he may be holding the Nicomachean Ethics in his hands, the book that eventually informed and inspired Thomas Aquinas).

(Interesting to not here that Rubens added his own design element to the depiction, in his version the mirror of Prudence has a handle.)

These frescos are giant, and full of details, and I can bet that I would find many other mirrors interesting details if having a chance to look at them closer. For example, I am very interested in this ‘thing’ that stands on a table (altar?), and if it has any relationships with the mirrors (or ‘mirrors’).

The ‘thing’ can be found in the very center of other fresco, so called La disputa del sacramento, but the wise elders debate not on all other sacraments, but specifically about the Transubstantiation (or μετουσίωσις metousiosis in Greek). More precisely, the name of this sacrament is the Eucharist (εὐ-χᾰριστία, from Greek εὖ — good, blessing and  χάρις — honor, respect, reverence). Catholics believe that during this rite bread and wine not merely represent Christ’s flesh and blood, but become them; for real.

I am deviating, though. But before I will come to Prudence, I’d like to notice that this fresco, or rather the fact that I eventually found it, has changed my ideas about so the called Mirror-less Raphael. Some while ago I wrote about the surprising lack of mirrors in the works of this master (see. Raphael’s Mirrorless Madonnas). This fresco completely changes this perception of Raphael – not only we see a mirror, but the mirror at work, as it also has a reflection depicted in it.

Apparently, Raphael’s Prudence was one of the most reproduce figure, both to the Rome’s own art students and to many generations of foreign painters coming here to learn from the Old Masters.

Here is another example of its copy, made by Italian painter Carlo Maratta in 1660s, or 150 years after the original (Raphael was making his frescos in 1508-11s).


Of course, Rubens was not the first Norther master who presented the Prudence with snakes and multiple heads to the locals. Here is, for example, the famous etching by Hans Sebald Beham – I wrote shortly about this German master, when writing about mirrors of Hans Baldung (Bewitched Mirrors of Hans Baldung), but I didn’t find this piece back then.

Hans Sebald Beham – Prudence (1539)

Beham does not depict the second head/face, but interestingly enough adds the wings – and also a compass and a ruler.

But perhaps the most known and influential was the version of Prudence made by Albrecht Dürer, allegedly in 1495, perhaps also during this first journey to Italy in 1494-95.

Albrecht Dürer – Die Klugheit (Prudence) (с.1495)

Notice that in this German version the Prudence became Wisdom (Die Klugheit). All other elements are present, only the snake transformed into a small dragon.


When I write about the influence these depictions made on the mids of people, it includes not only the works by other artists who start using these elements in their works, but also the embodiment of the image into the fabric of everyday, when the majority of people couldn’t imagine the world otherwise.

For example, I found a few sets of Tarot cards that depict Prudence in a very similar manner – and this presence is much closer to everyday’s life of many people than a fresco or an altarpiece in a church:

The left cards is fairly old, made around 1760s, while the right one is from a contemporary deck.  Both of them are the card  XXXV (Prudence), from the so called  Mantegna Tarocchi, or Mantegna Tarot Set.

It was long believed that they are really Andrea Mantegna, the Italian master from Padua, approximately in 1480s, but today the majority of experts consider this version as urban legend. Most likely it was made by a less renown craftsman who perhaps borrowed some of the elements from Mantegna (among others).  In any case, I didn’t find any work resembling Prudence in Mantegna – although I found a somewhat similar work by another Italian master of that time, Vittore Carpaccio:

Vittore Carpaccio – Prudence (c.1495)

I don’t know whether Durer saw the originals (by Mantegna or by Carpaccio) or only their representations, for example, in form of the Tarot card, but in any case he did his job, of spreading the visual meme further to the North.

Here I of course have another case of ‘re-writing history’ (the history of this blog, that is). Similar to Raphael, I always considered Durer a mirror-less painter (see The (lack of) Mirrors of Cranach & (almost lack of) Mirrors of Durer). Back then I found only one woodcut allegedly attributed to the master, but now I have a drawing which is quite decidedly considered as the one by Durer.

The rest of this entry is jus a long list of other works, paintings and etchings created by different Northern masters. I have many more in my collection, much more that I can share here without abusing the format of blog entry; I will therefore show only a small selected set.

Here is the version by some Jan (or Johannes) Wierix) from Antwerp – she resembles the figures of Durer (and Mantegna) but lost all the snakes and dragons, and has only one head (ironically this particular print has a second silhouette of a head, but I don’t think it was to depict the second head, of an older man).

Johannes Wierix – Prudence (1579)

Here is another, rather unpretentious Prudence by Сornelis Massijs, the painter of the beginning of 16th century from Antwerp (no second head, but much more erotic, with bare breasts):

Even more erotic version by Lucas van Leyden – Allegory of Prudence (1530):

This is an example of a rare depiction of not one, but two mirrors: we see the second mirror on a wall behind. The figure (this time completely naked) also has a compass and a book, but if she wouldn’t have the description next to it, she she could be misperceived as Venus (or Vanity).

I guess it is not a mistake, but a deliberately ambivalent depiction, of Christian virtue on one side, and at the same time of a provocatively seductive woman.

Here is another Dutch engraving, sometimes attributed to Jacob Matham, but also considered to be a copy (or a version made after) one of the works by Hendrick Goltzius:

Visually there is nothing here specifically pointing to Prudence, except the mirror she holds; but the mirror could be an attribute of many other things, such as, again, Vanity. (Here I need to mention that I still can’t decipher the writing beneath, perhaps it points very clearly to the presence of Prudence.

Goltzius created another work of a women with a mirror, and if to follow the pattern she can be also seen as Prudence – only she is often described as Allegory of Sight:

Hendrik Goltzius – Allegory of Sight (or Juno) (1598)

Another interpretation is that we see here Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth, and of order of things in general (she was an analogue of the Greek Hera, the wife of Zeus, and was called Uni by Etruscans). Interestingly, but in all these reincarnations she had a capacity to foresee the future.


There are, in fact, many more versions of Prudence made by Hendrik Goltzius. The one below has a full set of the Prudence’s attributes, including the second head – but not the mirror! It does, however, has the brand sign of the Dutch master, the warped fingers of his right hand:

Hendrick Goltzius – Prudence (с.1590)

However, he did make the Prudence with a mirror, too – perhaps, the most famous (and the most terrifying) of his many Prudences:

Arcanas rerum forutor Prudentia causas,
Prateria ancipiti vista videos futura.

Here I can at least transcribe the writing (but still can’t translate it properly. My very approximate version is

Back into the arcane past looks Prudence,
Thus she can foresee (anticipate) the future.

Similar to her Italian sisters, many depictions of the Northern Prudences can be found not only in paintings and artistic drawings, but also in other forms of visual media, for example, in book illustrations, maps, sculptures etc.

Below is Prudence from a front page of a book , showing the portrait of some Tobias Scultetus (no ideas who he was), surrounded by Justice and Prudence (c. 1610):

Here is another example, this time of a map’s cartouche where we also find Prudence (surely an important quality for any captain):

We see a snake here, but also a fish (or a dolphin). I guess, the latter is added because of nautical context, but I will explain later why it’s actually a very appropriate addition to the canon.

(For the record, the map is of the Canary Islands, published by the Dutch cartographer Johannes van Keulen approximately in 1680.

The one below is even more interesting example – it is a goblet made in the beginning of 18th century in Amsterdam, by Jan Lankhorst. Its stand is made in form of Prudence, and she even holds a mirror:

She seemingly has a snake, too, but I have only this one photo and can’t say if she also has a second head.

Prudence was also made in much larger formats, too. The marble sculpture below is from the Royal Palace in Amsterdam (Het Paleis op de Dam).  It is open for public, and I have a chance to see this sculpture ‘for real’ in the future.

The sculpture is made around 1665, by the famous Flemish master Artus Quellinus the Elder. There is another sculpture by him in the same room, of Justice

– who holds an interesting object, a kind of sun on a handle. It resembles a mirror, of course, or rather a ‘mirror’, in its archaic meaning that was used not so much to look at yourself, but to reflect the light (of the sun). I briefly touched this topic in one of the earlier postings (see Speculum Rex, Aeternum), but need to research it further at some point.


The fact that Virtues walk in couples, or even in groups is not an exception but the rule (my first posting about them started from the team of four, and I’ve shown many other examples of the ‘virtuous bands’). Many Norther master followed this suite too, depicting Prudence in a company of other virtues.

Here is an example of Prudence and Justice by Cornelis Bos (1537)

And here is even more complex group, of Prudence with other noble figures (Fortitude? Reason?), from a front page of the book made by Romeyn de Hooghe around 1690.

This picture illustrates another example of a ‘moving meaning’, or a ‘meaning slipping’ (similar to the chain from a remora to a dolphin to a snake to a dragon (and even becoming cornucopia on the way – I wrote about these shifts of meaning extensively last time.)

Here the story is not so elaborate, but interesting nevertheless, and is even more directly lined to mirrors. If you loot at the object hold by Prudence, it may look like a mirror. It may be a mirror indeed, but many contemporaries could also interpret it as a sieve. Apparently the sieves were also quite a common attribute of Prudence, especially in the Northern Europe.

Here is a etching by Philip Galle (с. 1590), made after the famous earlier work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Seven Virtues: 

Notice that Prudence holds a mirror – but also has a sieve on her head:

AS often happens, the exact roots of this symbol is difficult to trace, and there are numerous version of its origin. Some people would consider a ‘sieve’ a symbol of virginity, referring to the Roman story about Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity somewhat miraculously carrying water from the river Tiber to the temple using a sieve (or a perforated vessel in another version).

It is in this context this object was often depicted on the portraits of Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen.

Quentin Metsys the YoungerSieve Portrait of Elizabeth I (с.1583)

But I also found even earlier pictures of Prudence in some manuscripts where she is also portrayed with a mirror and a sieve (this one is dated by the end of 15th century).

If we return to vanilla Prudence, we can also find many other symbols associated with this Virtue (and of course also many different interpretations thereof). In this version, for example, the two-head-ness is outsources to the nearby sculpture, the mirror becomes a shield (?) – and I don’t know the meaning of another axe- or mace-like she holds in her right hand.

Lucas Vorsterman (I) – Prudence (c.1630)

In this work the mirrors morph into the Eye of Providence (notice that this is yet another work by Hendrick Goltzius).

Hendrick Goltzius – Prudence (c.1610)

Interestingly, but in the majority of earlier works the mirrors had been hardly used – as mirrors, that is. I am of course always interested in more elaborated and intricate scenes, where we would see more sophisticated human-mirror interactions.

One example could be the work by Hendrik van Limborch where we can see a full-blown mirror cocoon (notice that the figure also borders with the one of Vanity, another case of ‘meaning slipping’):

Hendrik van LimborchPrudentia (c.1730)

Or another very original composition, by Philip Galle, who has depicted a very enigmatic and contemplative Prudence.


The last work is again Italian, but I didn’t find it last time, and it would be pity to miss such a grand mirror-dish!

Aenea (Enea) VicoPrudence (1543)

To conclude, this log posting didn’t add much to the core concept of Prudence and the iconography of her mirrors, but definitely added more nuances to  my understanding of its evolution in time and space.


PS: One may ask why we don’t see all these Prudences around us, if there were so many of them made? The answer is dead-simple – it’s because we don’t pay attention. Last time I mentioned the site where people collect the sculptures and other depictions of Prudence from all over  – if not the world, than at least Europe.
But you can find them everywhere, just open your eyes, as the say. My own mea culpa happened in St.Petersburg where we’ve been few years ago. There we also went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the oldest buildings in the city. As often happened, I was talking pictures left and right, and later found this photo:

This is of course Prudence (with a couple of interesting details, such as this shell-like backdrop and a certain creature (monkey?) on her shoulder. But by then I wasn’t doing my ‘art-mirrors’ project yet, and completely ignored this sculpture.

Only much later when browsing through this archive I suddenly bumped into this picture, and was able to (re)discover its meaning.  Just to add a few ‘useless factoids’: this and another sculpture, of Justice, are a part of the so called Peter’s Gate of the fortress, designed by the first architect of the city, Italian  Domenico Trezzini and build in 1708.

When searching for Prudences, look up and down, and to the sides. And of course look back too!



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