“Not Know Me Yet?”

Looking at Cleopatra in Three Renaissance Tragedies
  • Mimi Still Dixon


“Eva Prima Pandora” is inscribed on a medallion that hangs over the reclining nude woman in a sixteenth-century French painting now in the Louvre [plate 4.1]. The picture, attributed to Jean Cousin and possibly the first nude painted in France, attempts to fix with clear verbal symbolism an image whose semiotic meaning is a little more ambiguous. This is Eve, who is also Pandora. Thus the death’s head, a reminder that death is the wages of sin, that a woman’s body is a “whited sepulcher”; also in the picture are Eve’s apples, a serpent, Pandora’s jars, one of which she seems to be in the act of closing or opening, as the serpent slides out of it. But recent illuminations of the painting in the laboratory have revealed something more. Another snake has been hidden, almost painted out, emerging from the jar. In the city behind the woman are ancient temples—could it be Alexandria? The pattern of the picture seems to be borrowed from a frontispiece by Holbein where the figure is clearly identified as Cleopatra. She is much like other images of Cleopatra in the period, the serpent wound up her arm in the moment before death. Why has her identity been obscured, merged into the more general moralization offered by Eve and Pandora? Perhaps, as one art historian claims, it is because this painting makes a political as well as a moral statement. Her face and her pose might have called to mind as well the notorious “other woman” who was said to rule the French king, Henry II, as his mistress—Dianne de Poitiers, immortalized in the bronze of Diana by Cellini installed over the entrance to her famous Chateau (Guillaume 191–92).


English Auditor Femme Fatale Semiotic Meaning Tragic Hero Male Hero 
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Copyright information

© Naomi Conn Liebler 2002

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  • Mimi Still Dixon

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