That’s no saint! Mirrors, witches and seeing yourself naked

As last week was overrun with discussing, making up, and trying out renaissance cosmetics ( and I’m updating the Making Up the Renaissance website as fast as I can alongside my other work) I didn’t have time for my normal blog post. I did, however, spot a couple of images that I thought would be perfect to talk about whilst I was once again looking through the fantastically useful British Museum Collections Database. I was searching for images of mirrors. As I briefly mentioned in a previous post,  I’m interested in how innovations in mirror technology (particularly the advent of flat glass mirrors, as opposed to convex glass or polished metal) may have affected body image. This happened at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, the first flat glass mirror patent being taken out in Venice in 1507. Largescale flat mirrors meant, I think, that people would be able to observe their entire bodies in mirrors for the first time. I’m wondering what kind of emotional charge that might have had. Anyone who remembers the TV series  What not to Wear, where candidates were ritually humiliated about their fashion choices and their rubbish bodies whilst standing in a small room lined with large mirrors, will know what I mean.

Monogrammist M, Vanity and Death, mid 16th century, British Museum

Although the What not to Wear hosts might have been vindictive, at least they weren’t actually Death, as in this Italian print from around the mid-sixteenth century. He peaks round the corner, holding an hour glass leering (as much as skeletons can leer?) at a naked woman trying to see herself from behind in a large flat mirror.  “Mortalia Facta Peribunt” says the Latin inscription at the bottom, “mortal things will perish”. The woman seems to be a kind of mixture of  Michelangelo’s Louvre Dying Slave and his Dawn in the Medici chapel, possibly an indicator of the most beautiful body someone could aim to own in the mid-sixteenth century?

Death and Vanity, to my knowledge, is much more common as a subject for prints in Northern Europe, particularly Germany, than in Italy. The same is true of images of witchcraft. There’s some fantastic German images of witches undertaking demonic rituals from the early sixteenth century by Dürer and Hans Baldung, but not many Italian images that are equivalent (if you want to read more about the German images, the relevant chapter in Joseph Koerner’s The Moment of Self-Portraiture might be a good start). Perhaps the nearest Italian equivalent to the frenzied German witches is an enigmatic print possibly by Agostino Veneziano called Lo Stregozzo.

Agostino Veneziano, Witch(?), British Museum.

So I was happy, and surprised,when I noticed the print to the left. Definitely by Agostino Veneziano (his signature is on it), the BM had catalogued this as an image of St Margaret, Looking at her though, it’s not likely that this woman is a saint – she’s all together too lascivious. Although she’s alongside a demon-type creature (at the bottom right), which could be St Margaret’s dragon, St Margaret isn’t normally shown next to a cave, nor does she wear a flimsy see-through dress which she suggestively raises with her left hand. That demon-type creature also seems suspiciously phallic if you look closely. In her other hand she holds a convex mirror – perhaps intended to be a scrying glass (like a crystal-ball, convex mirrors were sometimes held to reveal the future and other occult secrets to people who knew how to use them). I have to say I don’t work on witchcraft, so I’m not going to do much with this image, but I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to do further research on it, or from those people who have already done some great research on witchcraft images in Italy. Anyhow, it seems to me that we can add this print to the small list of Italian images of witches. It would be good to know if this reflects actual ritual (there are several extant witchcraft trials, especially from northern Italy), or whether it’s just an artist’s fantasy. I wonder if there’s any others that have been miscatalogued?

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