Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Mermaid (detail) (Image #1) from Neptune (Image #2)
  • Creator: Testard, Robinet, illuminator
  • Description:

    In this image detail, a mermaid blows a trumpet while holding a stringed instrument. She embodies an ideal beauty with small breasts, white skin and a high forehead. Her long blonde hair emphasizes this perfection, but beneath her waist the fins and double tail mark her as a creature of the sea. In the full manuscript image, the mermaid is part of the entourage celebrating Neptune as he creates the horse. In Classical mythology Neptune and Athena each created a gift for the city of Athens in a competition to become the civic deity. Neptune's gift of the horse was bested by Athena's present of the olive tree.

    This illustration of Neptune appears in the text Le Livre des échecs amoureux moralisés written by Évrart de Conty (d. 1405), a physician at the court of King Charles V. Earlier, Évrart had composed the poem Les Eschés amoureux and then thirty years later wrote a prose account, incorporating a moral commentary, with both texts depending heavily on the Roman de la Rose for content and form. The newer work had specific didactic intentions: to teach a young prince how to govern well and, at the same time, how to behave when in love. The stories and images of the Classical gods provided examples to emulate and behaviors that the young reader should avoid. For example, the tritons accompanying Neptune are equated with flatterers:

    "The fish tuning and trumpeting around Neptune to do him honor
    and keep him company signify to us the flatterers of the world
    and the great blabbers, who ordinarily use futile, vain words,
    and are often enough found everywhere, and especially in the
    courts of great lords."

    This copy of the text was made between 1496 and 1498 for Louise of Savoy, Countess of Angoulême and mother of King Francis I, for the use of her son. The illustrations were painted by Robinet Testard, an artist who served the Angoulême family, a branch of the French royal family. His work is notable for bright colors and strong lines with a highly developed attention to decorative details. Charles d' Angoulême and his countess, Louise, commissioned Testard for works in which he created new visions of allegorical and symbolic meaning. None of Testard's manuscript illustrations are signed or dated, requiring that his works be identified by attribution, along with some associated documents.

    The mermaid is a common figure in later medieval art, where she often stood for worldly pleasures or lust. These negative connotations were further reinforced by the association with sirens, half-bird women, known from Greek and Roman mythology, to pose a danger because of their seductive songs. In Testard's image, the mermaid is playing music; but, in this case, she poses no danger to sailors. She also does not carry the common attributes of comb and mirror, signifiers of lust or vanity, but her bare breasts and delicate features invite the viewer's gaze to linger.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons (Image #1);
    Gallica (Image #2)
  • Rights: Public domain (Images #1 and #2)
  • Subject (See Also): Classical Influences Gods Mermaids Music Mythology- Classical in Art Neptune
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1496- 1498
  • Related Work: Évrart de Conty, Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS, français 143, digitized copy.
    Saturn devouring his children, Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés, MS, français 143, fol. 28r.
    Venus and Jupiter, Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés, MS, français 143, fol. 104v.
    Diana hunting with her attendants, Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés, MS, français 143, fol. 116r. Mermaid, British Library, MS Royal 10 E IV (Smithfield Decretals), fol. 47.
    Mermaid nursing her infant, British Library, MS Additional 24686 (Alphonso Psalter), fol. 13.
    Mermaid with mirror, British Library, Yates Thompson 27, fol. 52v.
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS, français 143, fol. 130v
  • Original Location: Cognac. Court of Louise of Savoy, Countess of Angoulême
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum; paint;
  • Donor: Laywoman; Louise of Savoy, Countess of Angoulême
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 51/34/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: de Winter, Patrick M. "Testard, Robinet [Master of Charles of Angoulême] (fl. 1475-1523)." Oxford Art Online, 2003;
    Évrart de Conty. Le livre des eschez amoureux moralisés. Critical edition by Françoise Guichard-Tesson and Bruno Roy. CERES, 1993;
    Évrart de Conty. The Chess of Love. Translation and commentary by Joan Martin Jones. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1968;
    Gilbert, Judith. "Mermaids." Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Edited by Carl Lindal, John McNamara and John Lindow. Oxford University Press, 2002. Pages 270-272;
    Giogoli, Kathrin, and John Block Friedman. "Robinet Testard, Court Illuminator: His Manuscript and His Debt to the Graphic Arts," Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History 8 (2005): 143-188. Available open access: http://www.academia.edu/download/33540055/Friedman.JEBS8.pdf;
    Legaré, Anne-Marie. "La réception du poème des Eschés amoureuxet du Livre des Eschez amoureux moralisés dans les États bourguignons au XVe siècle." Le Moyen Age 113, 3-4 (2007): 591-611. Available open access: https://www.cairn.info/revue-le-moyen-age-2007-3-page-591.htm;
    Legaré, Anne-Marie. "L'iconographie de Dame Nature dans Le Livre des Eschez amoureux moralisés, d'après le ms. BnF, Français 143, enluminé par Robinet Testard." Nouvelles de la Rose. Actualité et perspectives du Roman de la Rose. Edited by Dulce Mª González-Doreste and Mª del Pilar Mendoza-Ramos. Secretariado de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Laguna, 2011. Pages. 209-225;