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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Vanitas

Object 26 - Peter Hewitt examines a beautiful sixteenth-century allegorical painting

Peter Hewitt
Death and the Maiden
'Death and the Maiden', about 1570

This week's object is a beautiful sixteenth-century allegorical painting, currently on display at Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon.  This type of painting is known as a vanitas – so called for its reference to Ecclesiastes 1:2, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity'.  Vanitas images reminded early modern viewers that despite wealth, learning and power, death awaits all.

A young woman in a sumptuous embroidered V-shaped bodice, with gown and fine damasked under-skirt, head-dress and feathered hat, strums a lute – a symbol of learning, harmony and pleasure.  An elderly gentleman holds a skull in his right hand and a convex mirror in his left.  As he holds up the mirror for the woman to gaze into, we see that her own reflection sits alongside the reflected image of death.  The man probably represents Father Time, his wizened features reminiscent of Shakespeare's own face 'beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity'.

Three Ages of the Woman and Death
'Three Ages of the Woman and Death', Hans Baldung

This vanitas draws upon another visual tradition, that of 'Death and the Maiden' a genre pioneered by Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484-1545).  In his Three Ages of Woman and Death, the maiden admires her own reflection, unaware of the passage of time, despite the reflection of Death's hour-glass.  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.  Baldung's maiden, peering desperately into a blurred surface which does not even reveal her natural beauty, let only the presence of Death, reveals widely held views about women – that they were intellectually and morally inferior to men.

The woman in our painting however is very different from Baldung's hapless maiden.  She 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.  For early modern viewers, the moral lesson of this vanitas may have been found in the woman's refusal to look at the reflection, which is clear and sharp, albeit distorted by the convex surface.  In this mirror, life and death crowd in, death is imminent.

Death and the Maiden detail
Detail of 'Death and the Maiden'

This image allows us to glimpse at some of the social values of late sixteenth-century England.  Some change has taken place since Baldung's time, and yet the social order is still tightly bound.  It shows that women were dignified and intelligent, capable of independent thought and artistic expression, but the wise old patriarchal figure still suggests a proscriptive tone.  But 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.  Sonnet 62 explores the difference between what is seen in the mirror and what our 'self-love' impels us see.  Shakespeare too, rejects the mirrors' truth, simply because the 'tann'd' visage he sees there does not do justice to the love and life he feels within.

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 chopp'd with tann'd antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
'Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

Sonnet 62