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Wise or vain: a no-win situation

From the earliest times the traits of prudence, temperance and fortitude were considered Cardinal Virtues and the ideas they embodied reached right back to Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. These Virtues were portrayed as women with various symbols reminding us of their important attributes.

But it is Prudence, from the Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity) who is painted time and time again with a mirror. It is clearly seen as a tool of reflection, consideration and of wisdom. Here’s two examples, on the far left an image by Giotto (1267-1337), from The Seven Virtues; and my favourite (above), a detail from Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura (1511) in the Vatican, which shows Prudence with two faces – her own and another on her blouse which is screaming as she sees the truth.

But despite strong associations between women and ideas of wisdom and inner reflection, the female figure with a mirror also becomes symbolic of vanity. Vanity had a slightly different meaning in the past, not being confined to excessive self-love but included pride and unjustified boasting, as in the word vainglorious. It seems it was a bad, bad thing to exhibit. So we see images of women as vanity staring into the mirror.

This one by Hieronymus Bosch (c1450 – 1516 ) is from his Table of Seven Deadly Sins. It’s a detail of the larger work and you can see the devil figure – a kind of stick-like animal that lurks behind the wardrobe. It reminds me of the the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, complete with little head scarf – this one is quite cute in some ways – but clearly intended to terrify those contemplating their image for too long.

And therein lies our no-win situation and one of the earliest problems for female artists – how to paint ourselves and avoid the pitfalls of being seen as either prudent or vain. One could argue that modeling oneself on Prudence would give more credibility but doing so would likely result in accusations of the other extreme – vanity! And we all know how mud sticks.


3 Responses to “Wise or vain: a no-win situation”

  1. Loving the blogs, Carole.

  2. […] the first posts of Easel and Me I referred to the female virtues of Wisdom and Prudence and discussed the various visual manifestations of these ideas or allegories. In the day-to-day […]

  3. […] have written several posts about how and why women avoided showing themselves in a mirror or examining their own reflections and discussed this trend in various posts here. Yet despite huge […]

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