The Mirror’s Eccentric History

For millennia, mirrors have not only served as objects for personal grooming, but also for magic, light, weapons, and even prototype cameras. We’ve come a long way from that first mirror, a still puddle or pool with a dark bottom. Today’s man-made mirrors maintain reflective properties but add more consistent clarity and, unlike a pool of water, they are portable. Over the years, mirrors became prized objects for refreshing our personal appearance.

In the 3rd century BCE, Archimedes of Syracuse weaponized the mirror. He is said to have turned mirrors into heat rays, redirecting the sun to the tarred, flammable wood of Carthaginian ships.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Echo and Narcissus,
John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mirrors are also an important part of Greek and Roman literature. Greek mythology tells of Nemeses luring a proud Narcissus to a pool, knowing the latter would fall in love with his own reflection. The story gave posterity two new words. Later, the Roman writer Ovid added to the story, placing Narcissus at the same pool, “well-deep and silver clear,” disregarding the calls of the beautiful nymph, Echo, standing nearby, unable to turn away from his own reflection1.

Carrying the association between pride and mirrors into the Middle Ages, the Church looked down upon this all-too human activity. Mirrors encouraged self-admiration, luring the most pious into committing one of the seven deadly sins.

This possibility became graver when someone discovered the idea of pouring a molten metal alloy onto the back of glass. First, this looking glass was convex, resulting in distorted images. But when this was done to flat glass, the proportions were right, and the blurry reflection from stone mirrors was wiped into focus.

The inspiration for this piece came after Poor Yorick staff viewed the short film, More Than Just a Mirror, a documentary about the Didcot Mirror, by filmmaker Sharon Woodward. This story is in fact inspired by some recent discoveries made in England. The Didcot Mirror precedes the Middle Ages, and comes long before mirrors of glass. As Dr. Peter Northover points out in the video, the Didcot mirror is made of bronze, decorated on one side and polished on the other to render a shiny, reflective surface2. Although still a luxury item, these types of bronze mirrors were the most common of the day. It would take 1,500 years for the clear glass mirrors to become every day articles, hung on our bathroom walls and stuffed into our purses.

By the time of the Romans, there were organized foundries making bronze objects, including mirrors. According to the British Museum, there were many mirrors of this type at this time in England. The Celts who inhabited the area had developed a particular style of decoration. “Decorated mirrors of this type are uniquely British, very few are made on the continent3.” They are commonly associated with the La Tene, or Celts who, before and during the Roman occupation, created beautiful pieces of art.

Poor Yorick reached out to the filmmaker of More Than Just a Mirror, Ms. Woodward, and the Curator of Archeology at Oxfordshire Museums Services, Mr. David Moon. That interview is coming soon!

 

References

1. Horace Gregory, trans., Ovid: The Metamorphoses. (New York: Viking, 1958), 94.

2. Wooodward, Sharon. More Than Just A Mirror. Video. Woodward Media. https://vimeo.com/142651625

3. “Desborough Mirror,” The British Museum, accessed 19 November 2015. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=828309&partId=1&searchText=bronze+mirror+celtic&page=1

 

 

Kevin Hudson
Associate Editor



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