The Illustration of Vanity Through Art and Words

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Through much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is clear in the writings and paintings that artists put a strong emphasis on the beauty of a women, when describing her. In poems written by male writers about women, a women’s beauty is described in ways one may consider shallow or vain. By highlighting a woman’s physical characteristics and alluding the viewer’s eyes to distinct features of a woman only further exemplify the vanity of the male gaze. This idea can be noted in writer, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. In many of the sonnets from Astrophil and Stella, Sir Phillip points out the beauty of Stella’s eyes; in “Sonnet 9,” he further describes Stella’s physical appearance by comparing her to various minerals and crystals produced by Earth. While Sidney describes his opinion of virtue being represented in a women’s outer beauty in his poem, a unique, but effective comparison, would be that of Georges de la Tour’s painting The Penitent Magdalen. La Tour painted this painting in about 1640, and uses specific symbols and plays with lightness versus darkness to accentuate the idea of vanity. The characteristic of vanity can thus be identified in both “Sonnet 9” and The Penitent Magdalen.

First, taking a closer look at Sidney’s “Sonnet 9,” the reader is introduced to the topic of virtue that directly pertains to a woman. Stella’s face is portrayed as the model of virtue in the first line: “Queen Virtue’s court, which some call Stella’s face” (Sidney 1086). In referencing to virtue, a sense of what virtue is and what it means to be virtuous should be taken into account. In this sense, virtue is purity, chastity and temperance, and faith. Virtue should be associated with one’s soul, but already, Sidney is instead linking virtue to a physical attribute. In addition, court refers to both a place and the people are there, only promoting the notion of the physicality rather than the spiritual.

Digging deeper into the depths of the poem, the physical attributes, or materials, are explored. These attributes are described in an expensive manner, portraying Stella more as a statue or of an unrealistic, lacking both mortality and immortality. She is being objectified in a violent manner by dehumanizing her through the use of blazon, describing the pieces or parts of the body using metaphors. Introducing the physical beauty in Stella’s face, Sidney announces that her face is created from the finest resources that Earth has to offer: “Prepared by Nature’s chiefest furniture” (Sidney 1086). Alas, Sidney describes the physical beauty of Stella:

Hath his front built of alabaster pure;

Gold in the covering of that stately place.

The door, by which sometimes comes forth her grace,

Red porphir is, which lock of pearl makes sure,

Whose porches rich (which name of cheeks endure),

Marble mixed red and white do interlace.

The windows now through which this heavenly guest

Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such

Which dare claim from those lights the name of best,

Of touch they are that without touch doth touch” (Sidney 1086-1087).

In a quick overview: alabaster represents Stella’s forehead, gold represents Stella’s hair, porphir represents Stella’s red lips, pearl represents Stella’s teeth, marble represents Stella’s cheeks, and windows and touch represent Stella’s eyes. Touch represents the beauty of her eyes and is testing her virtue – her inner soul – compared to her other assets.

magdalenWhile sculpting Stella’s face, the idea of windows allow one to see both in and out. There is something more to Stella than her beauty that lies within her eyes. Although a heavy focus is on the physical beauty of Stella, her eyes are what have Sidney’s distraction. Moving on to la Tour’s painting The Penitent Magdalen, which is also referred to as the Magdalen with Two Flames, is one of several paintings (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This painting in particular best depicts the idea of vanity.

Aside from the woman sitting, a mirror is highlighted in the light of the candle. Mirrors alone symbolize vanity. A mirror identifies both flaws and perfections physically on someone or something. In the woman’s lap, his a skull, which represents mortality. Skulls remind people that death is real and that the idea of immortality is simply just a spiritual belief, which alludes to the candle. The candle is the only object being reflected in the mirror and its flame is burning high and bright, possibly connecting the viewer to a spiritual enlightenment (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It is important to note the woman herself, as well. While vanity rings strong through the center focus of the mirror, the woman is barely identifiable. She is partially hidden in the shadows of the painting and her face his turned so that the audience cannot see her facial features. The woman is clearly of European descent based on her pale skin and her hair color appears to be brown. Lastly, while her clothing suits her for the time period in which she comes from, it also gives notice to her lack of breasts and a bigger build. Rather than a model-sized woman, she appears average and more relatable, in a sense, to one’s own figure.

Trying to find a relation between la Tour’s painting of The Penitent Magdalen to Sidney’s Sonnet 9, one may not be able to recognize the similarities, but instead only see the differences. As previously addressed, both pieces of art have a central theme of vanity. While Sidney’s depicts vanity through the eyes of a male admirer onto Stella, la Tour portrays vanity through the use of the mirror. The strong emphasis put on Stella’s physical appearance is what characterizes Sidney both as vain and shallow. This is drastically clear in his use of blazon to accentuate the dehumanizing depictions of Stella by comparing her to expensive materials taken from Earth’s natural crystals and minerals. The mirror only highlights a usage. Mirrors are often used to depict flaws and imperfections, highlighting one’s one vanity. In the painting, the woman seems to staring into the depths of the mirror, but it is unclear as to what she sees or is looking for. This form of vanity, although different from that of Sidney’s, tell the same message of physical appearance and beauty.

In addition, the idea of spirituality and mortality and immortality are represented. The spirituality in the painting is seen through the candle. It is the only object in the painting that is also being reflected in the mirror and it is the focal point for light. The “windows” that represent Stella’s eyes in the poem, hint to a deeper meaning that’s internal and spiritual. At the same time, Sidney’s materialistic illustrations of Stella’s beauty give her a statue-like resemblance. By dehumanizing Stella, there is a lack of mortality, as well as immortality. While statues are not mortal, they do deteriorate over time, also making them lack the impression of immortality. On the other hand, la Tour’s painting gives awareness to mortality through the skull. As previously mentioned, the skull acts as a reminder that all living things come to an end in death, and that nothing is forever. In a sense, the skull is a contrast to the mirror. While the skull demonstrates mortality, the mirror hints toward a spiritual immortality. In some aspect, the contrast of both object give rise to the fact that vanity, the physical features, are not as everlasting as one hopes or thinks.

Although la Tour’s painting does not directly correlate to Sidney’s sonnet, the overall message being delivered is what matters. The illustration of vanity through both of these works of art, pinpoints to value women had in their societies during that period of time. While immortality is explored, it is also knocked down with contrasting features, such as the fact that materials deteriorate over time, or symbols, like that of the skull. The subtle indication of a spiritual enlightenment adheres to the spiritual awakening, or prominence, that may have been taking place during that time.

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