Art Stories

Discover entertaining essays on a wide variety of artworks from our extensive collections in the section Art Stories.

In the same boat

Michel Erhart or Jörg Syrlin the Elder
Allegory of Vanity, Ulm, c. 1470/80, KHM, Kunstkammer, inv. no. KK 1

A young woman, a young man, and a second woman, elderly and at death’s door, can be observed from every angle. The old woman’s posture and the expression on her face seem to mirror the characteristics of the young man. The emaciated, aged body, the painted fleas, and mouldy green hair at the same time repel and fascinate.

Aphrodite d'Este
Roman, 1st century B.C. (?)
KHM, Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities, inv. no. I 1192

Unable to see one another, they stand naked, equal, and back to back upon the same base.


Since antiquity there co-existed ambivalent views of old age: respect and contempt. Around 1500 youth, beauty, and virtue increasingly came to be regarded as one. The elderly, inexorably weaker, were consigned to irrelevance and became object of scorn.

Especially in northern and central Europe during the Renaissance, the transience of youth and beauty was addressed, often in drastic terms. The sculpture fashioned of lime wood was in the 19th century enclosed in a cabinet, which allowed only one figure to be seen through a narrow opening.

written by Cäcilia Bischoff, translated by Joshua Stein on 17.10.2018 in #The Face of Europe
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