Sixteenth-century Europe saw, with the apogee of humanism, the reactivation of intellectual and creative energies towards classical antiquity, through which the decorative arts flourished. Designs were highly imaginative, with increasingly complicated, fantastical motifs, in which material opulence coexisted with humanist knowledge in the form of historical and mythological themes.[1] A case in point is this design for a hand mirror by Etienne Delaune,  one of the finest ornament engravers of all time. Despite this engraving’s small size, the rich ornamental details of the design invite us to take a closer look at this wonderful object.

Dated 1561, this mirror tells a story of rejuvenation and death: Medea, wanting to please Jason after he returns with the Golden Fleece, conspires to have his lifelong enemy, Pelias, killed by his own daughters. According to the story, Medea rejuvenates a ram in front of Pelias’s daughters and convinces them to dismember the body of their father and throw it in a cauldron. Having failed to please Jason by killing his lifelong enemy, she is then forced to escape his fury in her flying chariot, pulled by two serpents.

The main scene is framed by female personifications of the seven planets: the Sun (or Apollo), at the summit, then Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the moon (or Diana), Mercury, and Venus, all with their corresponding allegorical attributes and astrological symbols. This cosmic setting suggests that Delaune’s source for the story was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is set under a star-studded night.[2]

Surrounding the planets and making up the handle are rich compositions with ornamental motifs typical of the time of Delaune: gemstones, strapwork, bundles of flowers, leaves, and fruits, scrolling motifs, and grotesques. Even the arrangement of the planets themselves, in pairs on either side of the central scene, recall the ignudi typical of grotesque designs.

The degree of detail in this engraving reveals Delaune’s brilliant artistic capabilities and a style influenced by Primaticcio, the school of Fontainebleau, and Benvenuto Cellini.[3] But it also reveals his use of symbolism to explore dominant ideas of his time and express his own beliefs: the castigation of vanity, the passage of time, the importance of transcending the futilities of mundane life, and a desire for the renewal of the Church. Using designs rich in allegorical and mythological subjects, as in this design for a hand mirror, Etienne Delaune would find his most expressive form of social commentary in ornament prints.


Laura Beltran-Rubio is a design historian and graduate of the Master’s program in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design.

[1] Marcus B. Burke, Andrew Morrall, and Maria Ruvoldt, “140-1600: Europe,” in History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400-2000, ed. Heather Jane McCormick (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2013), 82-115.

[2] Christophe Pollet, Les Gravures d’Etienne Delaune (1518-1583), 2 vols. (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2001).

[3] Per Bjurström, “Etienne Delaune and the Academy of Poetry and Music,” Master Drawings 34 (1996): 351-364.

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