The Mirror – Mastering Reflection or Eye Catching Deception


The Mirror has occupied a unique place in the imagination of humans for as long as recorded history. It has been described as the ‘matrix of the symbolic’, accompanying the human quest to know and understand our identity.

‘Know thyself’ is an ambitious ideal and a continuing dialogue between philosophy and love.

It was well known in ancient times when writers mention this and other such aphorisms written on the walls of the proneos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

In Ancient Greece looking at one’s reflection could mean losing one’s soul, and the ancients put forward all sorts of hypotheses concerning the formation of such images.

Many myths, legends and superstitions are associated with the mirror and in all cultures they are associated with truth.

In antiquity the eye served precisely to characterize one’s beloved ocule mi, my little eye. In the pupil was an image of the one who looked into it.

Gazing at one another to see the reflection of each other in the eyes was an aspect of love. In Eve’s eye, described as the mirror of love, that Adam first learned to know himself.

From that encounter ‘reflection, concentration, self construction and reproduction’ were said to have been born.

Mastering reflection was one step towards an evolution that began with an observation by ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle in 330 BC. He questioned why the sun could make a circular image when it shined through a square hole.

In the words of contemporary French historian Sabine Melchior Bonnet, it was part of a cycle that climaxed with the ‘democratisation of narcissism’ during the nineteenth century.

Apples-in-MirrorOver the centuries has a mirror become a metaphor for eye catching deception? What is it that the eye is really seeing?  Does the image it reveals have a foundation or consistency.

When you move away from the mirror the image is lost, much like a shadow? Is it magic…how does it work?

Was it really the Greek God of fire and metal Hephaestus who invented the mirror?

“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”*

Narcissus in mythology was the son of the blue nymph Leiriope conceived when the river God Cephisuss raped his mother.


Narcissus, a painting attributed to the Baroque Master Caravaggio – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Rome

He grew to be very beautiful but took no notice of other people because he did not care about anyone except himself.

The beautiful nymph ECHO was one of many maidens who fell in love with him. She had lost her voice, except in foolish repetition of another’s shouted words but when she tried to declare her love he sent her away.

After witnessing his callousness, as one story goes, the Greek Goddess Artemis caused Narcissus to catch a glimpse of his own reflection in a pristine pool of water and fall in love with himself.

This made it impossible for him to ever consummate a love of his own or possess a beloved, just like all those suitors he had turned away and rejected.

His grief was so great he plunged a dagger into his breast and where the blood fell to the ground beautiful pure white flowers sprouted.

Ancient Mirror in Egyptian BoxThere are many myths and legends associated with the paintings on ancient Greek vases. They reveal secrets about ancient Greek civilization, including the daily ritual of the ladies ‘toilette’.

We know ladies painted their faces with white-lead paint using hand mirrors that consisted of circular pieces of polished bronze or a combination of other metals, either without a handle or with one that was often richly adorned.

The earliest known mirror, from a cache world-wide of about three thousand such mirrors, dates from ten centuries before the Christ event. It is Etruscan, a thick disc made of metal alloys to which a small handle was attached by means of three rivets.

As in all ancient mirrors it was polished to a high degree on one side to obtain a reflection.


Etruscan Engraved Mirror

Mirrors engraved with figurative scenes date from the so-called Saitic period between 663 and 526 BCE.  It is clear from comparison with other ancient Greek mirrors from the same period the Etruscans occupied part of which we now know as Italy and were not only inspired by Greek art in a general way, but also frequently copied Greek models. They did this with such great care and precision today it needs an expert to reveal the difference.

Mirrors were an important aspect of Etruscan burial sites, perhaps as funerary offerings like in the burial of the Pharaohs of Egypt when everyday items were included for the journey into the afterlife. Much of the mythology associated with mirror images relates to offering a moral message.

They may also have had a further meaning ‘extending beyond cosmetic needs’ for that of ‘cult’ ceremonies and rituals. This would explain why some subjects recorded on ancient mirrors would not be suitable for a ‘ladies’ mirror but instead be used on a mirror used by a man.

Greek Geographer Pausanius, whose travel guide was published in the second century records that a mirror decorated the entrance to the temple of Lycosura considered the most ancient city of ancient Greece, and indeed perhaps the world.


Entrance to an ancient Greek archaeological site

The Mirror was supposedly a reminder to those entering that in order to be receptive of the message from the Gods they needed to shed their own appearance and reveal their souls beneath so they could be refreshed and healed.

Before leaving they were able to re-clothe themselves with a new identity and go forth into the world with a sense of direction, motivation and purpose.

This whole idea is mirrored if you like, in the ceremony of Christian baptism, where one must go through a symbolic ritual of dying from the life you are currently living and after being immersed in water reborn again into a new life.


Roman Engraved Silver Mirror

During the Roman Empire men used mirrors and, not only its elite aristocrats.

Servants too acquired mirrors at that time and their owners took great care to protect them from rust, stains and scratches by using fabric coverings and remnants are still visible on some specimens that exist today.

Besides metal Romans valued a black transparent volcanic rock called obsidian for its reflective powers.

Archaeologists have established that mirrors used by the Emperor Nero in his ‘domus aurea’ were made of a reflective phengite a mineral that reputedly ‘gave off such a dazzling glow they overpowered the natural light of day”.

Light was an intangible phenomenon by which our own world was made visible. Symbolic of goodness, revelation and beauty light became the focal point of philosophical argument and theories in all the different religions and cultures of the world.

Today we associate glass with mirror. However it was a long time before metals and glass were brought together to make what we would today call a mirror.

Glass in its earliest form was not blown, but moulded, using tools to shape and form it.

Ancient-Sumerian-Cuneiform-ConeAn ability to make tools to mould and carve materials at will meant that hunter gatherer man, as well as being able to form weapons for survival purposes, could expand his skills and make artifacts that by extension are at the beginning of art.

The terminology of glass was recorded on cuneiform tablets from the ancient Sumerian city of Nineveh seven centuries before the Christ event where three different furnaces for metal are described.

Receptacles for melting raw materials are also mentioned in Egypt in the Amarna period during the reign of monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten.

To explain the origins of glass many writers turn to a picturesque story written in the first century by Roman writer and commentator on natural and social history Pliny the Elder.


The beauty of Roman Glass

He tells how merchants encamped on the sands of the River Belus placed their cooking pots on cakes of natron, a native hydrous sodium carbonate, they were engaged in transporting. In the morning they found the sand and soda had fused together forming a new substance, glass.

Pliny also talks about the ‘makers of glass’ with reference to the inhabitants of Sidon in Lebanon. The only other early written reference we have is by Alexander of Aphrodisias in the third century.

We do know the Romans were producing glass in some quantity from the first century by the fragments and vessels found in the ruins of Roman sites and at Pompeii where glass vessels are clearly depicted in wall paintings.

Whether the ancients were familiar with glass mirrors is a matter of debate amongst scholars.

The Romans became very proficient at blowing glass and used lead to strengthen it. Most archaeological evidence of glass mirror dates from the third century and comes from Egypt, Gaul, Asia Minor and Germany.

Archaeological digs in Egypt have uncovered mirrors made and backed with lead that have glass with a convex curve behind the lead over which a coating of gold or tin had been applied.


Stained glass in Lincoln Cathedral in England

Variations on this process prevailed it seems for centuries well into the Middle Ages. Exploitation of light in the East was always through carved tracery of stone made possible because of climatic conditions.

It was only in Europe that the introduction of an optimum amount of light was required because the climate of the Middle Ages was one of a preponderance of dull days.


Window stained glass refracting glorious light in St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane

Great expanses of glass became the hallmark of what has since been termed Gothic architecture, whose other characteristics include pointed arches, stone tracery and external buttresses.

It was during the Abbot Suger’s rebuilding of the Royal Abbey at St. Denis near Paris in the eleventh century the golden age of European Gothic architecture and use of glass stained with colour began.

Neo-Platonic theory, to which Suger subscribed meant that he produced a style of architecture lit by ‘radiant windows’ to ‘illumine men’s minds so they may travel through it to an apprehension of God’s light’. This was only possible by his age because of the advances being made in France in glass making techniques and an ability to colour glass.

Before the advent of this uniquely Christian art form windows were only utilitarian. Monks like Suger were aware coloured glass not only sent an image of deep spirituality but also drew the faithful to read the messages of the stories it told because it dazzled them with its radiance.

One can only try to imagine the effect of such brilliance on a medieval mind emerging from a state of written illiteracy – it must have been quite staggering. In Cathedrals around the world reflected colours are an evocative reminder of the rainbow and God’s covenant with man following the flood, according to Genesis.

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus ChristGoing to church for medieval people not only meant inner spiritual instruction and comfort but also entry into a magical kingdom where a mystical experience made man more receptive to God.

A contrast in our own day would be with computer generated special effects in movie cinemas. There we are transported to another world where we can forget our difficulties,  mind numbing challenges and allow ourselves a break from the humdrum reality of everyday life.


Lady and the Unicorn – Sight

During the twelfth century a monk named Théophile recorded contemporary glass making techniques.  This was at a time when commentators viewed science and the supernatural as intimately linked, with the transformation of half solid, half liquid, molten glass into a transparent and rigid substance viewed as some sort of magic or alchemy. In his writing he refers to French glass-makers being considered masters of the art and a recipe….two parts beech tree ashes to one part sand. Their methods of glass blowing involved procedures he states ‘as inherited from the ancients’.

The technique of applying a silvered backing to mirrors evolved slowly and from the thirteenth century small mirrors were being exported to Genoa and from there all over the Mediterranean world.

In the thirteenth century a Franciscan monk from Oxford in England John Peckham wrote a treatise on optics mentioning glass mirrors covered in lead. The famous medieval poem Roman de la Rose also dedicated a great stanza to the ‘marvellous powers of the mirror’.

Germans figure among the possible inventors of modern glass-making process with two glass makers from Murano in Venice declaring they were the only ones to know ‘the secret of making mirrors of crystalline glass, a most valuable and singular thing‘.

Waterford-Glass-blowerThe technique of blowing glass was recorded quite methodically by a secretary to the Duke of Lorraine in the early sixteenth century.

He describes how ‘an iron attached to the end of stick’ was pulled out so ‘that the glowing timber which, once blown and rolled out on a plank became so round and swollen it took the form and size of large, average and small mirrors as needed’.

The worker then ‘applied lead ‘with great skill in order to reveal the lustre’.

The Venetians challenged the glass-makers of Lorrain to be the first to perfect glass making and over three hundred years they would rise to such prominence that no one believed they could ever be overtaken. From the middle of the fifteenth century glass-makers from Murano knew how to make a glass so pure, white and fine they called it ‘crystalline’ because of its similarities to rock crystal, whose transparency and shine it resembled.


…who is the fairest of them all…

However the reputation the Venetian republic established in glass-making attracted workers from northern Europe and eventually it wiped out all competitive initiatives from abroad.

At Venice they nurtured and treated glass-makers like artists, rather than artisans, granting them privileges such as the right to marry the daughters of nobles with many families gaining celebrity status. However it also imprisoned them on the island of Murano to keep a monopoly on supply by guarding the secrets associated with its production.

As they were perfecting the technique of cylindrical blowing the Venetians also improved silvering by the addition of mercury and tin and arrived at a ‘divinely beautiful, pure and incorruptible object, the mirror’…’a beautiful and useful invention’.

Diane de Poitiers by François Clouet (1571) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Diane de Poitiers by François Clouet (1571) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A Mirror so I can admire myself
You must give me one of the ivory ones
And the case that is noble and genteel
Hung from silver chains.

In the sixteenth century in France King Francois 1 owned a Venetian mirror decorated with gold and precious stones. A lover of luxury and Italian art at his court at Fontainbleau Francois acquired 25 more. Just one cost 360 ecus of gold and he started a fashion his courtiers followed and soon everyone was investing in this fascinating new object.

One of a sixteenth century Lyon group of writers Claude de Taillemon had a motto; one’s duty is to see. He said ‘the pupil of the eye transports me to itself so that I enter in the center where I see myself clearly’.

During the medieval period ancient goddesses such as Aphrodite the Greek Goddess of Love, or Venus her Roman counterpart, had been a focus of fear of nudity, luxuria, or sensuality, as well as paganism. During the Italian Renaissance  she returned to her original role as universal mother and creator of all living things.


…what is the truth asks painter Peter Paul Rubens

Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) painted her as a contemporary lady and placed her before a mirror, a symbol of truth (it does not lie) but reflects pride (Satan’s image), as well as vanity and lust.

Rubens used the mirror as a symbol of idle dalliance and as an allegory for the battle for her immortal soul.

The power of love was meant to transform the soul and became a popular theme at this time in art works.

He used pearl earrings to illustrate the darker and lighter sides of passion, the white pearl highly visible, the black pearl teasingly reflected only in her mirror. She is a truly luscious lady wearing, well nothing at all really, except a gold bracelet decorated with arrows, a sign that Cupid has been around endeavouring to use the power of love to disarm her strength.

Mirrors were fascinating and rare objects at this time. Through their lens until today the material world worked its way well into our consciousness, affecting the way in which we perceive others, as well as ourselves. From the sixteenth century onward the mirror was an indispensable hand tool for the toilette of well born ladies.

Venetian-MirrorThe Venetian mirror was still a very rare object for more than two centuries. Owning one became a symbol of high status. At the same time painting and literacy shared an objective for that of increasing the value of an image. For the greater portion of the population mainly polished metal mirrors remained widespread. They were sold at the market or by street vendors who would cry out Little mirrors shiny and snug…ready to reflect your ugly mug! And- I sell purses, belts and laces, I know how to tie up your shoes and have mirrors for the sweetest faces.

During the sixteenth century flattery was recognized as a deceptive illusion, and this was all bound up with vanity. It was considered better to please someone than alienate them in a social setting where personal expression was now considered to reflect one’s own power and glory.

palace-mirrors-04Supplying the French court and nobles with mirror became an important concern for Venice as it seemed they could not resist the seduction of its novelty. Catherine de Medici installed a cabinet lined with 119 Venetian mirrors following the death of Henry II and visitors could view their portrait multiplying before the mirror. The Chamber of Mirrors became the height of fashion and there was great rivalry between the ladies of the court who could not imagine herself without a chamber of mirrors of her own.

Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau of Versailles, France

From the late sixteenth and into the early seventeenth century Henry IV, the Great of France encouraged glass makers by granting titles of nobility whether they be French or foreigners and many took up his offer.

Venice kept itself informed of their progress but in the end none of the scattered efforts was conclusive and French dealers still continued to import their wares from Venice.

During the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715)  the furniture inventories of the crown recorded 563 mirrors and it was Louis XIV’s able 1st Minister, Colbert who decided to concentrate his efforts and found a glass industry.

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles by William Orpen

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles by William Orpen

He granted Sir Nicolas Dunoyer, the son of one of the king’s butlers and a tax collector in Orleans a warrant to establish the policies and procedures of the new company, which would eventually become the Royal Company of Glass and Mirrors.  However this would not happen before a lot of intriguing, spying at Murano and other matters of industrial espionage had taken place.

From 1666 French writer, essayist and philosopher Voltaire wrote ‘We began to make glass panels as beautiful as those of Venice, which had previously furnished them to all of Europe and soon we made some whose size and beauty were never imitated elsewhere’

In the Comte de Saint Simon’s Memoirs of his time at Versailles he describes the court as a multitude of voyeurs all observing each other’s secrets…’As we were walking in his small hallway, I saw in the mirror at the end of the passage that he was laughing while lowering his eyes, like a man enjoying the conversation he was overhearing’. The mirror allows nothing to hide in the shadows and inset into all the walls and doors they became a theatre of reflection and artifice.

When the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles was presented to the public in 1684 everyone found something to say in praise.  What more perfect symbol could be found for the dazzling reign of the so-called Sun King himself.


Jeanne-Antoinette, Marquise de Pompadour in her mirrored boudoir

Everyone could admire himself or herself from head to toe. Seventeen false window casements opposite seventeen real windows were covered with eighteen mirrors placed side by side, unframed, joined by finely carved gilded copper frames.

There were 306 panes of glass blended to give the appearance of being part of a larger single pane…the hall vanishing in the radiance of shimmering surfaces and bursts of light.

Some visitors described it as the ‘architecture of emptiness’. Reality and reflection supporting each other reciprocally.

It cost altogether 654,000 pounds to produce the effect although it is not known how much of this was spent on the glass.

Over the years since it has reflected many great moments in the history of the world. At the time however Colbert, Louis’ 1st Minister, that great entrepreneurial master of ceremonies used it to launch the Royal Mirror Company and its success gave considerable momentum to the young industry and in increasing public awareness of the decor possibilities of the mirror.

By using mirror the French designers could now reflect nature as an element of interior décor, choosing the best location for the installation of glass.

The aristocratic society of the court were passionate about emphasizing the optical and visual as it was all associated with light that element so desired indoors on dark days and dark nights.

When Francois Boucher painted Mme de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress he also used mirror to reflect the fact that she was exceedingly proud of the nape of her neck.


Regency Convex Mirror c1810 courtesy Martyn Cook, Martyn Cook Antiques, Sydney Australia

The metaphorical distance between the polished surface of a mirror from antiquity to one made of glass for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in the seventeenth century is immense.

It is probably about the same as that of between the plaited rushes used in window insets of medieval houses to that of plate glass display windows of a modern department store.

Mastery over the reflection was only the first stage of a social and cultural revolution that would influence the relationship between man and image for evermore.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the ability to produce larger sheets of mirror became a reality, it promoted the compleat gentleman, helping him to refine his image and bodily adornment.

It also served to establish the reputation of the beautiful soul, just as a rich frame set off a beautiful mirror.

“Ribbons, lace and mirrors are three things the French cannot live without’ said a Sicilian visiting Paris.

In the nineteenth century a mirrored boudoir served as a stage for dual narcissism, one in which each lover is both the voyeur and exhibitionist trying to attract the gaze of the other. The clever convex mirror came back into popular use in interior decor allowing the user to see what was happening behind them. They had a wide field of view if you were dabbling in the art of intrigue, so  it could be very handy. They also reflected the light from candles elegantly.

French mirror - tortoiseshell and ormolu c1700 - Metropolitan Museum of Art

French mirror – tortoiseshell and ormolu c1700 – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mirror that has pleased me so well
Mirror ever since I have seen myself in you
Deep sighs have killed me
And I am lost myself
Just as handsome Narcissus became lost

What role will the mirror continue to play in our future or will we always remain haunted by what is not found within it?

Mirror Mirror on the wall….who is the fairest of them all?

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2014

*Poet, Novelist Dramatist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

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