Monday, 2 February 2015

A 15th Century BEAUTY...and the painters fly....

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family
about 1470, Swabian

The sitter's family is identified by the inscription 
"GEBORNE HOFERIN" (born a Hofer), 
although her precise identity is unknown.

She holds a forget-me-not, presumably for remembrance. 
On her headdress is a fly, 
either a symbol of mortality or a reminder of the artist's skills of illusion.

The artist worked in Southern Germany, Württemberg, near Ulm; 
the portrait probably dates from about 1470.
National Gallery, London

Simply pure BEAUTY!


This is the painting of my 2015 Diary
from the National Gallery, London,
for the first February week.

After a rather clouded January (in the truest sense of word!!)
I was so delighted this morning when I opened my Diary,
and had the need to share my pleasure.

Bonne semaine a TOUS!


The National Gallery 2015 Diary is a celebration of colour.
Each month takes a different colour as its theme,
and each week features a famous painting from the National Gallery's collection 
that schowcases how artists used colour in antmospheric landscapes, 
ornate textiles or expressive portraits.

This diary is sold out, but there is the  
National Gallery Colour 2015 Mini Desk Diary available here

 During this year I'll try to post more "weekly paintings"....



"The Fly on the painting....."

The portrait of the Swabian woman of the Hofer family is both poignant and comic. 
Her eyes twinkle, and her mouth is halfway to a smile, 
as if she knows only too well what the artist has done to her: 
on her copious white veil sits a black fly, positioned as conspicuously as a beauty spot. 
It lives – the illusion is superb – and it will die, like the brilliant blue forget-me-nots in her hand. 
Memento mori can be stultifyingly conventional (the skull, the candle), 
but these are so unusual as to be sharply arresting. 
And the fly is a proof of the anonymous artist's gifts too: 
a guarantee of the realism and fidelity of the portrait.

Interpretation from:  here



by Steven Connor


The Painter and the Fly


Flies had featured regularly as decorative elements in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours such as the Isabella Breviary. They began to appear in paintings from the fifteenth century onwards. Art historians who have tracked the appearances of the fly over the ensuing century and a half have divided decorously into two groups. For some time, the consensus seemed to be that flies were to be read as religious symbols, connoting sin, corruption and mortality (Kühnel 1989, Estella 2002). The well-known associations between the fly and the name of Beelzebub, ‘Lord of the Flies’, a local Philistine deity first mentioned in 2 Kings 1 and later promoted to the condition of Satan’s lieutenant, helped pin down the fly’s demonic credentials. A clear example of this is The Mystic Betrothal of St. Agnes (c. 1495/1500), by the Master of the St Bartholomew Altarpiece, in the German National Museum in Nuremberg. The Golden Legend tells us that St Agnes gave an unwanted suitor the brush-off by telling him that she was betrothed to Christ. In the background of the painting are two peacocks, symbols of virginity and resurrection, and a larger-than-life fly, symbol of the earthly lusts she has renounced......


....More recently, art historians have begun to wonder whether the fly is quite so easily to be swatted for symbolic purposes. For the fly seems also to be used, as Felix Thülemann has put it, as ‘a selfconscious representation of superior painterly prowess’ (Thülemann 1992, 543). The fact that representations of flies are often to be found in the vicinity of artistic signatures, especially those which have the trompe l’oeil form of the rolled or torn strip of manuscript, seems to heighten the association between the fly and the making, even the maker, rather than the meaning, of the work of art... 

There is an ur-story of the painter and the fly, first told by Filarete in his Trattato di Architettura, written between 1461 and 1464, but known much more widely from Vasari’s brief reference to it in Lives of the Painters (Vasari 1996, I.117). 

The young Giotto arrived in the studio of his master Cimabue, to find a portrait in progress on an easel.

 Giotto painted a fly, seemingly poised on the nose of the painting’s subject. When the Master returned to the studio, 

he attempted repeatedly to brush away the fly. Implicitly, this is the moment at which the genius of the young Giotto was noticed, and a new area of realism inaugurated. The story was quickly transferred to other artists. In his fictitious dialogue between Leonardo and Pheidias, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo has Leonardo tell how the young Andrea Mantegna fooled his Mantuan Master by painting a fly on the eyelash of a lion in his painting of St Jerome; envious of his talents, the Mantuan master sent his uppity apprentice away to work with Bellini (Lomazzo 1974, I.93-4). 

In these stories, the fly signals the art that conceals art of the painter, an ostentation arising in ordinariness, a perfecting defacement.....


When they stumble into art, flies are the ground promoted to the status of figure, a breaking through into visible significance of the blooming buzzing monotony of the insignificant, the accidental, the ignored; they are what Wallace Stevens calls ‘a repetition/In a repetitiousness of men and flies’ (Stevens 1984, 502). Where other lowly or loathly creatures have often been held to characterise the abject or the informe, flies have a more specific office. As embodiments of accident, of what just happens to happen, as synecdoches of the untransfigured quotidian, their principal signification is as the opposite of art. And yet, for that very reason, flies have whizzed and crept and tiptoed across art and writing for centuries, never quite achieving the status of a subject, of that which may be fixed in view, and yet irresistibly drawing the eye and soliciting the attentions of the forming hand.


Flies are, in two senses, a provocation to art – a nose thumbed at art’s grandiose self-esteem, and a challenge to the artist’s skill. The fly is always caught – as though on a windowpane - between the condition of emblem and phenomenon: at first sight a mere smudge, blot or blemish, which then becomes the emblem of its own obstructive phenomenality.  

read all   here



With great thanks to Jackie from  HOME 

for stimulating me to delve further into the mystery of  "HOFERIN's Fly"!! 




Any kind of interpretation or idea on this subject

    will be more than welcome.



  1. How interesting Karin ….. it seems odd to paint a fly on her headdress.I have just read that it has also been suggested that the artist added the fly looking as realistic as possible in order to puzzle the viewer, to make them wonder if a fly has landed on the painting. Perhaps not ... because the fly might have been included as a symbolic element. The woman is holding a "forget-me-not" flower, and flies have been known to be a symbol of mortality, so it could be possible that this artist is using these symbols as an expression of rememberance for this woman after she has died It spoils her beauty a little, I think !! …. and, I thought forget-me-nots in the language of flowers meant true love or memories but, I'm probably wrong. Maybe in that particular part of Europe, the language of flowers is different !! I suspect that, only the artist knows why he painted the fly and the forget-me-nots and what they mean. A really interesting post Karin and, it made me delve deeper. XXXX

    1. Dear Jackie,
      Thank you so much for your intensive and thoughtful comment. I think that the artist has added the fly into this portrait as a kind of "provocative element" - something to think, to "hinterfragen" to question, to reflect, to......imagine or....or just adding a simple ordinary piece of daily life to that beauty face. I do not know. But I'll update a German describtion of this portrait.
      "Forget-me-not" - this flower has the same meaning for centuries in German (as I'm German - I only can talk about my own father/mother country).
      To cut it short - you make me thinking about the meaning of the fly. I'm sure that the artist had something in mind. But - at the end of the day - it's all about our own imagination and - in my opinion - our own life philosophy.
      Nevertheless - She's a real BEAUTY....and the unknown artist - what can I say - he's brilliant!
      Let's make research about the "fly"....the meaning behind.....
      That's the good and positive side of blogging, isn't it.

    2. It certainly is Karin. I think that art is meant to make us think and wonder, don't you ? I hope that you didn't think I was questioning your interpretation. I just wrote down what I had read about the painting but, who knows what the artist wanted to portray ? I think that someone also said that the fly had been painted in great detail. If you look closely, you can even see that he painted the shadows of the legs !!!!! The fly was obviously a very important part of the painting wasn't it ? I have never seen this painting before but I shall always remember it now and how intriguing it is !! XXXX

    3. No way, dear Jackie, that I think that you would questioning the interpretation (which is not my own one!). It's rather the opposite - I was so pleased to read your comment, and the second one!!
      A very positive provocation! It stimulated me to find out more about the "fly"symbol-meaning" in painters work....quite interesting.
      For this particular portrait:
      When I had another look at it this morning, paying special attention again to the details, my first thought was " humor"!
      And then by delving further - I've find out that the fly, used as a symbol in paintings, is also related to 'Vanitas'. - in the sense of "vanity is transient"
      The Hidden Symbolism of Insects in Western Painting:
      Fly - symbol of rot, wasting away, decay, death, melancholia
      A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the king or corruption and dereliction of duty.

      A fly hovering over a maiden or noblewoman suggests shamelessness or a woman given to lustful actions. (like this one - ha-ha!!!)

      Apart from all 'academically' interpretations - it went through my mind that there could be a very simple meaning in this painting: What you mentioned in your first comment - a desire to be remembered. A desire we might all have, rather comforting - knowing that we will be still remembered and not completely disappeared to???? Maybe into the cyberspace by now?????
      Should I ever manage to make my way to London again, I'll certainly will visit the National Gallery, just for this special painting (although there are 2 more of my favorite ones)
      Maybe we meet there - speculating - "weaving" - imagining - about this artist's "Fly".
      I'm really grateful for your thoughts, Jackie! Thank YOU.

    4. WOW Karin …….. I have really found this painting SO interesting. I don't think that a painting has intrigued me more !! Your post has actually made me look at myself and realise that I don't really look at paintings hard enough …. I shall from now on !!!! XXXX

  2. Fabulous image Karin...and I didn't spot the fly till you mentioned it ...look forward to more pictures from your diary !
    Gail x

    1. You see? Here we are! We are sometimes "blinded" by beauty without seeing/realizing real life.
      Thank you, dear Gail, for your comment. And thank you for being such a loyal visitor to my blog!
      Warmest greetings to Good Old England!

  3. Dear Karin, Another fantastic post you are sharing with us. I love the choice of paintings. It is so like you to find what is unique and what is beautiful.

    When painting porcelain the artist is sometimes "forced" to paint an insect to cover a mistake that has been made by an errant brush. That is why you will see all kinds of flying critters outside of a central motif on a plate. So next time you see a fly or two there is most often a smudge or dot underneath.

    Spring must be coming to your garden. No doubt your Helleborus are blooming. Greetings to Mr. R. Wish we were there for the cocktail hour. ox, Gina

  4. What a wonderful antidote to our dreary and never-ending winter! This is one of the most charming (and beautiful!) portraits I have ever seen. And I can't remember any that was ever so joyfully portrayed someone so happy, with such a keen sense of humor! Wouldn't this woman be a wonderful friend? The strength of the personality, the small smile, it's marvelous!
    As for the fly, any and all meanings carry conviction. I enjoyed the essay very much. Frankly, I think this is a case of the artist showing off. How realistic! How convincing! How skillful! And I think he earns the right to show off. Trompe l'oeil is always a tour de force when it works, and this certainly works!
    The sheer beauty, though, would be a great gift from your blog post. But then you accompany it with all these interesting and useful and provocative thoughts --- Thank you (as always!) for your largesse, Karin.

    1. Thank you very much, dear Judith, for such a thoughtful and brilliant comment!!! I agree with everything!

  5. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.

  6. I loved reading this very interesting discussion.