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What a cryptic message is encrypted in the first self-portrait written by a woman: Katherine van Hemessen
What a cryptic message is encrypted in the first self-portrait written by a woman: Katherine van Hemessen

At the words “creative genius”, a series of self-portraits of famous artists flashes before our eyes, where each of them is intensely thinking in front of an unfinished canvas with a brush in hand. There are actually many of them. This image is so familiar and hard to believe that this tradition came from a young twenty-year-old girl in a corset. The talented Flemish Renaissance artist, Catherine van Hemessen, is considered by art critics to be the first to paint a self-portrait at work. But the most interesting thing is that the artist encrypted a mysterious message on this canvas.

The first self-portrait in the history of art at the easel

Leading art historians say that this amazing self-portrait, which Catherine van Hemessen painted in 1548, is probably the first such self-portrait. Previously, none of the masters painted themselves at work at the easel. The conclusion is certainly bold. After all, there can always be an earlier example that has been unfairly forgotten over time.

Hemessen's painting is one of the most innovative in the history of self-portraits

But in the case of Hemessen's stunning masterpiece, it's not just a pose at work. A talented artist, she depicts herself creating her own portrait. This brings the work together and makes it one of the most innovative in the history of art. The creative depth and complex spiritual dimension in this oil painting reflects the very nature of creativity and presents an idea that forever changed the way artists presented themselves to the world.

Secrets of the canvas

Immediately, the eyes of the beholder are attracted, like a magnet, by the girl's slightly anxious look, which cannot be caught. She looks past the viewer, into the mirror, which is somewhere outside the picture. The velvet long sleeves of her dress run counter to the not-so-clean task of mixing colors on a palette. All this enhances the staging effect.

When you start to look more closely, your eyes rest on the teasing inscription that Katerina left. In the unclear void between the large image of the artist, which dominates the right side of the canvas, and the smaller one, which she has just begun to create on a primed oak panel. The caption reads: "Ego Caterina de Hemessen me pinxi 1548 Etatis suae 20" (or "I, Catherine van Hemessen, painted me in 1548 at the age of 20").

Hemessen's post is ambiguous and open to interpretation

Of course, there is nothing unusual in the signature of a portraitist on his work. Immediately, the text does not carry the function of explanation. It serves to enhance the visual effect and create intrigue, semantic, psychological and philosophical. Inevitably, you begin to wonder who is uttering these strange words? Does Katerina herself breathe them out of the picture through the past centuries? The artist who was able to become famous in an era when women were not particularly able to achieve success. And so much so that her services were used by the queen-wife of Hungary and Bohemia, Maria of Austria. The statement "I am Katerina …" as a demonstration of the alter ego. On the canvas, is she or her silent semblance that with an absent gaze looks so persistently into nowhere, avoiding eye contact with the viewer?

Another auto-porter by Catherine van Hemessen

If we follow the logic of depicting a painting until its completion, then what kind of “I” does the artist mean? Hemessen's portrait suggests the existence of three separate personalities. They are refracted, like a ray of light in a prism, into the bright spectrum of the artist. A forever unfinished individuality, locked in a revolving phantasmagoria of personalities. What is the final "I" among them?

Clash of identities

There is no doubt that Katerina deliberately made it so that the meaning of the work depends on her mysterious poetic inscription. Her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, taught her. He was the leading teacher of the Catholic school of the Flemish Renaissance. Thanks to him, Katerina knew the history of fine art perfectly. Her mysterious, blurry signature seems to allude too clearly to one of the most haunting self-portraits ever. Self-portrait by Albrecht Durer.

The German Renaissance master created his painting half a century before the self-portrait of the Flemish artist. He also placed his inscription in Latin right at the eye level of the connoisseur. It reads: “Albertus Durerus Noricus ipſum me propriis ſic effingebam coloribus ætatis anno XXVIII” (or “I, Albrecht Durer from Nuremberg, painted me in eternal flowers at twenty-eight years old”). Experts admitted that Dürer's self-portrait is a very daring clash of identities. Albrecht boldly alludes to the resemblance to countless images of the risen Christ. Eternity is in his eyes, and his hand is raised in an imperious sign to judge souls on the Last Day.

Albrecht Durer's self-portrait (1500) also has an inscription

Katerina also boldly refers to this famous self-portrait. She's not just self-confident or asserting exaggerated artistic ambitions. The artist goes even further, doing something much more outrageous. Hemessen subconsciously invites us to perceive her very existence as spiritually inextricably linked with the existence of the Savior. If someone has doubts about this intention of her, you just need to take a closer look at the canvas.

The hand held by Katerina in her right hand is strictly horizontal. The support for the artist's arm stands vertically on the panel. All this neatly and unmistakably forms a cross. Against the background of an unfinished self-portrait, this cross serves as a hint of a crucifixion. The artist seems to want to say that her vision and skill torment and redeem her at the same time. This is exactly the feeling with which artists perceive themselves, their spiritual state.

Mirror reflection

An artistic and spiritual mirror image gives a sense of intrigue. Katerina then identifies herself with Durer, then with Christ. All this reinforces the mystery. Any self-portrait involves the use of a mirror. It's out there somewhere out of the box. There is something wrong with that in Hemessen's painting. Her head is in the upper right corner, and on the easel, on the contrary, in the left. Everything looks as if the artist cleverly corrected the optical inversion of her image, which she sees in the mirror outside the frame. That is, a self-portrait on an easel is more believable than the painting itself.

As with the image of Dürer, Hemessen compared her personality with the image of Christ

Hemessen managed to confuse everyone with his playful mind-blowing puzzle with mirrors. The artist has created more than just a fascinating puzzle. She was able to write a very deep visual treatise about the very nature and essence of spiritual and physical imitation. This topic has always been at the center of religious thought. A century before Hemessen painted her self-portrait, Thomas Kempis, a late medieval Dutch-German theologian, published his book Imitation of Christ. It was a very influential work in Christian religious circles. A kind of guide to the spiritual life in which the support of the mirror emphasizes the importance of reflection, symbolizing the holiness of the universe.

The works of the 14th century Italian mystic, Saint Catherine of Siena, reinforce the meaning of the mirror in the imagination of that time and give an even deeper resonance to Hemessen's work.Her teaching was then very widespread in Europe. Siena challenged the conventional wisdom that women have no right to reflect Christ. With the help of a mirror metaphor, she says that Christ needs her. Ahead of Hemessen, who dares not only to take the liberty of drawing, which is only allowed for men, but also to see the image of the Savior in herself.

The position of the hand has its own meaning

Katherine van Hemessen can be safely called a feminist. Her self-portrait displays optical, artistic and religious reflections of the culture of the time. She set the style and spirit on which all subsequent self-portraits will be built. Her underrated painting sets in many ways the themes that more famous self-portraits from Rembrandt to Cindy Sherman, from Artemisia Gentileschi to Picasso, will explore in the centuries to come. These are works that have not only influenced the respective works of these exceptional artists, but also the history of art itself over the past several hundred years.

If you are interested in art, read our article on why the painting "Annunciation" by the monk Fra Angelico is considered mystical, and what secret signs are encrypted on it.

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