Hans Baldung’s painting “The Three Ages of Woman and Death” asks where outer beauty fits in our lives.
Is outer beauty a blessing or a curse? It’s easy to look at the curated displays on our media feeds and feel we aren’t beautiful enough or that we are somehow lacking.
It can become easy to lose ourselves in a visual world altered by Snapchat and Instagram filters. So perhaps we should ask ourselves who we are despite how we are (or wish to be) perceived.
Hans Baldung and the ‘Dance of Death’
Baldung was a 16th-century German artist who studied at Albrecht Dürer’s workshop. In his 20s, Baldung became concerned with the inevitability of death and often depicted a motif referred to as the “Dance of Death (Danse Macabre).”
The Dance of Death was popular throughout the late Middle Ages when death, considered the great equalizer, was depicted alongside the beautiful and powerful with the message being that all—even the young, beautiful, and rich—cannot escape it.
In “The Three Ages of Woman and Death,” Baldung presents four figures in a landscape, with three of these—the child, the youth, and the elder—representing three stages of life. The fourth figure is Death, who accompanies them.
The child is shrouded in a sheer cloth that wraps around the young woman as well. The child looks only at the young woman, who looks only at her reflection in the mirror she holds. Is the child interested only in becoming the young adult?
The young woman adores her own reflection in the mirror. She no longer sees herself as a child, nor does she see her impending future. She is turned completely away from Death, who tries to remind her that her time is short by holding an hourglass above her head. Does her self-absorption prevent her from seeing beyond herself?
The old woman uses one hand to support the mirror, while at the same time, she moves toward Death with a look of angst on her face. Is her movement toward Death voluntary or is it compelled? She tries to block the hourglass that Death holds over the young woman’s head. The old woman looks only at the hourglass and ignores Death. Does her preoccupation with time and resistance toward Death prevent her from making peace with the inevitable?
Death, holding the sheer cloth that threads between the young bodies, looks only at the hourglass but ignores the surrounding figures.
Balancing External Beauty With Beauty Within
To reduce this image to the suggestion that outer beauty fades would be to miss its nuances. What timeless attributes of the human spirit can we glean from this painting?
The child is only able to see as far as the young woman. Though we are often introduced to death at a young age, how real does it really seem to us? How close does death seem to the average child in the Western world? Children can feel like they will be young forever. Ironically, however, many children can’t wait to be older. How often do young children want to be like their older siblings or like the “free” adult?
The old woman supports the mirror and attempts to block time. Is she trying to maintain the beauty of her youth? Our later years in life may result in us wishing for our youth again. We may try to defy time to remain beautiful and young forever.
In this sense, the beauty of the young adult is the fixation for those this side of death, that is, for all those who are alive. Both the child and the old woman wish to be the young woman, and the young woman adores herself.
Death, however, does not care about our individual wishes or endeavors. In the painting, Death does not look at any of the figures but only at its consort, time. The outward beauty of youth is unable to tempt or deny Death.
Baldung seems to suggest that we can’t find true beauty by searching outside of ourselves. Despite our efforts, external beauty forever fades under the banner of time; death always looms like the hourglass.
The danger of selfishness in relation to external beauty is that we can confuse outer beauty with inner worth. Sometimes, we wish to be beautiful and own beautiful things to the detriment of others. We spend our time wishing to be more beautiful or pursuing more money to possess more things.
Is this what feeds the addictive nature of smartphones and social media? Are smartphones (with embedded selfie-taking cameras) and social media the modern equivalent of the mirror in Baldung’s painting? Is social media’s endless potential for customization causing us to turn our backs to reality and to unattractive things that we must confront at some point?
I began with the question “Is outer beauty a blessing or a curse?” Maybe it can be either. Maybe what is most important is our mindset toward beauty. Maybe we can appreciate external beauty as long as we don’t forget to cultivate beauty within.
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we will explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).