Reflections on mirrors, reflections in mirrors
‘A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?’
John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Lockdown limps into months, and the mirrors in our home-prisons reflect much more than outside’s taunting sunlight, or the last few days’ huge moon. Every time we pass, we see or stare at ourselves, or some representation of ourselves, broken up into light and returned as backwards ego. We joke about lockdown hairstyles and states of undress – but behind these jokes is a kind of uncertainty, as we become increasingly aware of our self-images, without ever really becoming accustomed to them. Unwonted leisure time is making us think more about the way we seem to others, the ways we present ourselves, the anxieties that lie behind our eyes.
Mirrors are ancient and powerful symbols of purity, self-realization and truth, passive receptors of realities. But they have also been widely seen as unreliable, unsettling, untrustworthy – morally dangerous as reflecting vanity, or doorways to subtly different places, or realms of inversion. They reproduce images endlessly; they also refract them, and were feared to retain them. They show us what we want to see – or what truths our lights allow. They flatter us, or magnify our flaws. They show beauty – or decay. Perception can be pareidolia, and comprehension conception, right from the moment, at about 18 months of age, when human beings start to recognise their own reflections. Even the ‘true mirrors’ we can make by placing two mirrors at a vertical 90° angle only show part of who we are. (The evidence for animal self-recognition in mirrors is sketchy, but some dolphins, elephants, magpies, monkeys and whales appear to have some such faculty.)
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.1 Corinthians
Mirrors are for contemplation, internal reflection as well as external appearance. Mirrors are one of the Eight Precious Things in Buddhism, especially hand-mirrors, the most personal looking-glasses of all. Many Shinto temples hold holy mirrors to encourage thought. For the 11th century Islamic scholar Abu al-Mu’in al-Nasafi,
The universe is the mirror of God…man is the mirror of the universe.
In medieval Christian iconography, mirrors symbolize prudence, veracity, and the Virgin through whom God ‘mirrored’ His image. But contemplation can become self-obsession. Narcissus stared at his legendary selfie so long he grew into the ground and lost all sense, and all sounds except Echo.
Mirrors don’t move like water moves, but in some way that makes them more unsettling, unchanging while everything they ‘see’ alters every second. Mostly unchanging, anyway, because old mirrors oxidise, as silver nitrate and copper sulphate flake off backing plates, and over time the light they throw back grows black-edged, dimmer, kinder, spotted like the foxing on a book.
We have antique convex mirrors in which the westering sun sets flames, then fires them around the living room like lasers – old starlight on old glass, sparking off the silver in unexpected directions, bearing rays into dark corners, revealing heavy dust hanging on suddenly highlighted cobwebs. As the Earth spins, the shine spins with it, and independently of it, walking fleeting gleams across picture or ornaments picked up at different stages in fleeting lives – ornate iron candlesticks, a French folk-art hen, rams’ horns, a large Victorian print showing London in 1560, a guitar, the moon-phase longcase clock built by Rodier of Paris in the midst of the Revolution, the mantelpiece with its skulls and horns. Trees swish outside, and the shadows of their leaves play on the glass, dappling our interior with urgent black movement – and all this time the mirrors are inert, distorting even as they optimise the optics, coldly reflecting everything else’s warmth. It is our room, yet not.
Mirrors have long fascinated artists, like Jan van Eyck, who included one in his Arnolfini and his Wife of 1434, showing the backs of the merchant and his wife – an illusion within an illusion, a painting within a painting, a miniature world within a miniature world. Leonardo pondered greatly on the properties of the eye, and why mirrors reversed, and wrote his Notebooks in mirror-script. How, he and others puzzled, do we get a front view of objects although we are behind them? Why does a mirror reverse left and right, but not up and down? Although self-portraits have probably existed as long as art, Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (circa 1524) summed up Renaissance humanism’s new emphasis on the individual, and surging interest in anatomy, and the science of light. (Parmigianino gave the portrait to Pope Clement VII, who in 1533 would give vital imprimatur to Copernicus’ cosmos-changing theories.)
Dutch Golden Age artists would make themselves synonymous with the treatment of reflections in mirrors, waters and windows – a fascination with clarity and vision for their own sakes that fed from, or into, Reformed theology. But this clarity itself was subject to perception and selection. We see and show what we can or want to, and what the Netherlandish school wanted to show was a prosperous, puissant Batavia, a well-ordered homeland as epicentre of a global empire. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles likewise celebrated national might and rational thought, as well as the Sun King dancing through his firmament.
But what, some superstitiously wondered, do mirrors show when we’re not there? This is a philosophical or, rather, sophistical conundrum on a par with whether a tree falling in a forest makes any sound. Mirrors are mere flat planes, but to some they seem magically phantomed, as if they preserved apparitions of the last person who gazed into them. Or worse – the Elizabethan alchemist-scientist John Dee was accused of seeing demons in his famous obsidian mirror. For centuries, mirrors would be turned to the wall when someone in a house had died – in case some dreadful doppelganger looked out.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice melted into a mirror, and Cocteau’s Orpheus, like many more in millennia of myth, testaments to mirrors’ essential impenetrability, their fascinating fluctuations between ‘absent’ and ‘peopled’ and back – their undimming ability to take us by surprise, and hold us forever in thrall.
This is Part VI in a series. Parts 1-5 may be found here – https://www.derek-turner.com/category/corona-humours/