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Symbols in art: What’s there in the mirror?

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Once, man conquered his fear of his reflection in water — and wanted the phantom to linger on. He tried different media, such as bowls of water or polished surfaces, experimented with tin and other materials. As a result of centuries of trial and error, we can now see ourselves at any time around the clock, and the mirror no longer seems a mysterious and sinister object, but quite an ordinary and everyday one. However, in art, mirrors still have a busy and glittering existence. So, why are they favoured by artists?

A curious fact: everyone knows the Venus symbol, but few know that the picture signifying femininity is derived from a pictorial representation of the hand mirror popular in the classical world. There are some indications that the sign of Venus’s looking-glass is traceable to the Ankh, the Ancient Egyptian symbol of life, understood as the key of life, the symbol of eternity.

So, there are reasonable grounds to believe that artists applied it to express their admiration for the voluptuousness of the body that promised the delights of love and granted immortality through providing future generations.

The sombre mediaeval glance

In the Dark Ages, when Europe looked into the mirror, it was an apprehensive look.
Indeed, is it any good when lay people, instead of praying, keep staring at themselves? Well, pride feeds best on self-admiration. What is more, pastime like this can make women (and men, too) desire something quite far from pure and spiritual. So, the Church and the authorities tried to curb their flock’s demands. Thus, they insisted that the mirror was nothing else, but a mere luxury, a companion of vanity and narcissism, and preached that, if misused, it could make a person mad. In categorical terms, the Church diabolised mirrors and demonised their owners. Those who experimented with mirrors were accused of sorcery. A general belief was that reflections in some surfaces could cleave not only the body and the heart, but the mind and will as well.

But is there a lady that would miss a chance to cast a glance at herself? That is why it became absolutely necessary to popularise the moral virtues, thus setting the careless lovely creatures on the right pass. So, for a long time, allegoric subjects took their place in the history of painting.

Giovanni Bellini. Four allegories of Virtue: Prudence

Bellini portrayed a wise girl who averted her face from the mirror: the devil was looking out of it!

Hans Baldung Green. Allegory of Death and Beauty (part)

Didactic illustrations were a job for a lot of painters. For example, Albrecht Dürer's student Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484—1545) showed the brevity of time: a woman with a mirror and an hourglass, in the company of Death, was a popular motif.

Bernardo Strozzi. Old Flirty

No intimidation, though, could stop the triumphant progress of mirrors. Different in size and shape, they found their way into grand parlours and humble abodes. Even ironic or moralising paintings failed to discourage people from feasting their eyes upon their reflections.

No wonder this object was a must in pictures painted in the genre vanitas (‘vanity') — there it reminded of the brevity, transience, impermanence of earthly pleasures. And this symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



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endured through the centuries.
One of the best-known examples of featuring the mirror as a symbol is Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Art historians differ in their opinions about its role in the situation depicted, but we prefer to think that the mirror is God’s all-seeing Eye, and the characters in the picture are taking a vow of fidelity in front of it. A hint to this understanding is the frame that is composed of medallions showing some episodes of Christ’s life (the Crucifixion, the Procession to Calvary, the Descent from the Cross, and the Resurrection).
Georges de La Tour. The woman in the shadows

Though in those days, a mirror was an allegory of women’s vanity, a candle it reflected represented the flame of faith shining upon the young woman.
Georges de La Tour. The Penitent Magdalene.1638—1643

‘And here is mirror mine — thou take this gift, o Cypris!’

A woman contemplating herself in a mirror for hours is sure to be of no virtue. So, for a long time, this attribute of women’s love life was branded as ‘an accomplice to licentiousness.' Could it be a mere coincidence that the leading manufacturer of mirrors was Venice, the city notorious for its courtesans!
So, in the early Renaissance, none other than Venus was drawn from non-existence to help protect the reputation of her favourite object. Though called Foam-Arisen, she came not on the crest of a wave, but fell from the sky. She entered iconography as a planet represented in the form of a goddess looking in the fatal glass.
At that time, nudity in art was strictly prohibited, and the disobedient ones could easily have found themselves burnt at the stake. Nevertheless, the public’s growing interest in classical culture allowed artists to ‘strip' women. That is how various subjects were introduced that enriched art history with charming images. One of those was Jan Gossaert’s Venus.

Diego Velazquez. The toilet of Venus

Perhaps, it is the mirror that makes an attentive viewer feel some sort of discord comparing the model’s beautiful body and the simplicity of her reflection.

Peter Paul Rubens. The Toilet Of Venus
Titian Vecelli. Venus with a mirror

A mirror cannot lie (especially a crooked one)

A common conception of the eighteenth century was that crooked mirrors were objects revealing a person’s true nature. Thus, the mirror, in human culture, started being a symbol of self-discovery.
It is possible that this theory was given rise to by anamorphic mirrors — shiftable mirror-like canvases invented in the first half of the seventeenth century. In it, optical displacement made a chaotic picture assemble into an easily perceived image. The effect was even interpreted in a deeply philosophical way, as the truth revealed through mirrors.
In Hans Holbein the Younger’s picture, the strange object in the foreground, when seen at a certain angle, appears to be a skull (this symbol of death was then popular in iconography).

A picture in the picture

The 16th century was the period of discoveries, inventions, and the extraordinary progress of science. Man became both the creator and the most important object of art. Human figures, as they were part of the world, were now depicted in most various poses, gestures, movements. Artists started using mirrors enthusiastically — to expand a composition, to show things that the viewers wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas

Velázquez had ten mirrors in his studio, though in his days, they cost quite a fortune. Once asked why he needed so many of them, he said that the mirrors were his assistants, almost his apprentices. Indeed, a reflection is a picture in a way, except that it only exists for a split second.

In the 19th century, artists were no longer content with just making their characters look natural and real — their models now had feelings, hopes, and doubts. To this end, the mirror came in most handy.
Note that the barmaid’s posture in the reflection is not the same as that in real life. Even the positions of the bottles on the marble counter are mirrored in a different way. The real and the reflected are inconsistent with one another. Perhaps, the real girl is now musing on the conversation she had a few minutes ago, and the picture in the mirror shows the events of those past minutes.

‘Tout m’appelle et m’enchaîne à la chair lumineuse Que m’oppose des eaux la paix vertigineuse!’

‘Everything calls me and enchains me to the luminous flesh, what is opposite me in the vertiginous peace of the waters!' — these are the words that Paul Valéry's Narcissus addressed his reflection that he had fallen in love with.
The myth, which belongs to the most popular ones, throughout the centuries, has been interpreted in numerous ways. In the Renaissance, Narcissus was even proclaimed the inventor of the art of painting!
Especially popular the myth became in Modernist art that was highly interested in how the subconscious effects on the act of creation. For Modernists, water was not a mere reflection of the young man’s beautiful exterior, but rather a symbol of what he had deep in his soul. Peering into his mirrored image, Narcissus was trying to gain insight into his own subliminal consciousness.


Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Narcissus
Karl Pavlovich Bryullov. Narcissus looking into the water

The poetry of everydayness

At the end of the 18th century, the cheval glass was invented. That well-proportioned, portable mirror soon became an indispensable article of daily use for every self-respecting lady. And thus, artists got a blank check to poeticise a humdrum life and the commonest interiors.

Pierre Bonnard. Red and yellow bouquet on the dressing table

Pierre Bonnard stuck to depicting the same indoor environment. On the one hand, the indoor objects and furnishings he featured in his canvases were part of the ‘looking-glass world,' on the other hand, they were included into the real environment, where the viewer was standing in front of the picture.

Edgar Degas. Madame Jeanty in the mirror
Zinaida Serebryakova. Over the toilet. Self-portrait

‘Behind my shoulder, in the looking-glass, I saw so often something not called for…’

In the pagan Rus (as well as in other lands), the glass of the mirror was a border between the two worlds, the material and the transcendental ones. Even now, it is still considered that destroying this border — breaking the looking-glass — spells disaster. Russian Old Ritualists regarded mirrors as a gift of hell and never had them in their homes. Looking into a mirror meant committing a sin. The belief held till the end of the 17th century. Then, Peter the Great took power, and now everyone was free to admire their mirror image.
Karl Pavlovich Bryullov. Gad Svetlana

This is the only folk subject Karl Bryullov ever painted. In this scene, the mirror is an instrument for Christmas divination. The heroine is peering, both fearfully and hopefully, into the dark shadows behind her.

Other worlds

The 20th century was the time when the mirror resumed being regarded as something more than an ordinary everyday object. Again, it was ascribed the mystic power of showing anything it would like to and taking a person into another reality. For example, the Expressionist artists took a liking to the symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



Read more
of vanitas, so they started showing the mirror as a mendacious structure that obscured the real nature of things.
Paul Delvo. Girl before a mirror

As the mirror symbolises truthfulness, it gave Delvaux reasons to believe: whatever attire a lady wears, her real self comes out, nevertheless.

René Magritte. Eternal proof

In Magritte's work, a reflection no longer depends on what it is caused by, and starts conflicting — not with the body, but with the mirror and with the laws of physics.

Michelangelo Pistoletto concluded his dialogue with a reflection in a curious way. Without a slightest hesitation, he smashed the wall mirrors in his installation composition Twenty-Two Less Two at the vernissage of the 53rd Venice Biennale. That was the artist’s protest against the practice of totally repeating the images. However, we still feel like having a trip about the worlds behind the looking-glass in pictures by different artists.
Title illustration: Gustave Courbet. Jo, the Beautiful Irishwoman. 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Text by: Yelena Nastyuk
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