Bronze Mirrors Unearthed in China Still Reflect After 2,000 Years

Bronze Mirrors Unearthed in China Still Reflect After 2,000 Years

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More than 80 exquisite bronze mirrors in excellent condition have been discovered in a large Han Dynasty tomb in China, after being hidden underground for over two millennia. Not only do some of them still have their original reflective quality, but experts are learning from the 2,000-year-old inscriptions and symbols that adorn them.

Bronze Mirror Image of the Mighty Han Dynasty

Ruling for just over 400 years, between 202 BC and 220 AD, the Han Dynasty was the second of the imperial dynasties in ancient Chinese history. Their rule is considered transformative in Chinese history, being dubbed the “Golden Age” of China. Now, in an article published in the Heritage Science Journal , Jiafang Lian and Quentin Parker from the University of Hong Kong write about the discovery of 80 exquisite bronze mirrors, discovered on-site in a large-scale ancient tomb in Western China.

  • Rare 1,900-Year-Old Chinese Mirror Has Mysterious Inscription, Which is Coming True
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The expedition was carried out by archaeologists from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology at a large cemetery in Dabaozi Village, Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province . To their surprise and amazement, after a bit of cleaning most of these mirrors still display reflectivity, even after 2,000 years. Not only that, but the wiping off of the dirt revealed symbols and ancient Chinese scriptures.

The back surface of the bronze mirrors shoes the detail of the decoration, which included symbols and ancient Chinese scriptures. (Jiafang Liang & Quentin Parker / Heritage Science )

Bronze Mirrors and Other Artifacts Unearthed at Gaozhuang

The mirrors varied in length – between 7 centimeters and 22 centimeters (3 to 8 inches respectively), and were generally buried near the head or around the upper body within the tombs. What was instantly clear from the graveyard at Gaozhuang Township – made up of 400 separate tombs – was that this was a burial ground for the Han elite.

This hypothesis was confirmed with the discovery of the artifacts unearthed within the tombs, including fine works of pottery, jade, iron and bronze that were buried with the bodies. Some of the mirrors show four Chinese characters “ jia chang fu gi ” which translated into “home of prosperity”, leaving no doubts about the class of those who had been buried.

The Han Dynasty , like several other dynasties across ancient, medieval and modern history, ruled with an emperor at the pinnacle of Han society. The emperor presided over their government, but shared power with the nobility and appointed ministers, who formed the gentry and scholarly class. It is this class of people whose graves were uncovered at Gaozhuang.

One of the archaeologists from the dig told the Global Times that “the newly discovered mirrors are great references for archaeologists to further study the material culture of the early and middle periods of the Western Han Dynasty . They are also excellent examples of the aesthetic taste of ancient Chinese and possess both historical and artistic values.”

The mirrors varied in length – between 7 centimeters and 22 centimeters (3 to 8 inches). ( China News Service / Zhang Yuan)

The Chinese and Their Mirrors: Xuan Xi

Lian and Parker write, rather poignantly, that the “modern scholar Liang thought the ancient Chinese got the inspiration of creating a reflective surface to see the world from looking at still water in a lake or pond.” This, in its essence, provides the spiritual and philosophical lens through which mirrors were theorized. The shimmering glow was obtained from an ancient Chinese method of rubbing quicksilver (tin and mercury paste) and polishing it with white felt – a process called xuan xi .

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“The earliest recognizable Chinese bronze mirror was unearthed in Gansu Province and has been dated to the Neolithic period’s Qijia culture (2200 BC – 1600 BC)”, write Lian and Parker of the first discovery from the Bronze Age culture. China’s next 4,000 years have three distinct and most important phases of mirror history: the Warring States (475 to 221 BC), the Han (202 BC to 220 AD) and the Tang (618 to 907 AD).

These three periods witnessed a gradual refinement of the bronze technique, and diverse artistic styles, as well as delicate and intricate decorations, during the Warring period. During the Han, though the quality of designs dipped, the quantities of production began at a mass scale – mirrors remain one of the most significant archaeological remains from this period. During the Tang, this technique and design became even more advanced and sophisticated as lacquer and mother of pearl included in the finish. Even then, the two scholars argue, the design quality could not surpass that of the Warring period.

The colorful journey of mirror through history

Long before the first man-made mirror saw the light of day, people observed their reflection in quiet pools of water or clay vessels filled with seemingly dark water.

These natural water-mirrors paled in comparison to the cut and highly polished stones of black volcanic glass which provided a reflection and appeared for the first time in Anatolia around 6000 BC.

Nature – the true inventor of the looking glass.

Then, the first copper-made mirrors popped out in Mesopotamia and Egypt between 4000 and 3000 BC. Back then, people flattened sheets of metal and polished them until they could see a reflection. Beautifully ornamented on the backside, these round-shaped mirrors were kept small as the metals were heavy to hold, and had a handle of wood, ivory or metal, which made self-viewing easier. These hand mirrors were, however, used primarily for show, as they did not really reflect an accurate image. About 1000 years later, the Chinese and the Indians would begin manufacturing bronze mirrors while people in Central and South Africa were making mirrors out of polished stone.

Bronze mirror with ivory handle, 1500-1350 BC. Photo credit

The discovery of glass-making allowed the Romans to manufacture the first glass mirror, in the first century AD. Although innovative, the metal-layered glass mirror, which was only about 7 cm in diameter, did not win the hearts of the people, as it still did not have a very good reflection. It became popular only after the invention of a technique allowing glass manufacturers to make flat thin glass and to cover it with hot metal without breaking it. Available almost exclusively to the ruling classes, it soon became common in Egypt, Gaul, Germany, and Asia.

The first glass mirror was made by the Romans. Photo credit

Wonderfully embellished with images of gods, a small number of large Greek mirrors could even reflect one’s entire figure. Archeological digs have also revealed a few very small convex glass mirrors dating to the 3 rd century. Silver-mercury amalgams, used as early as ca. 500 AD, allowed for somewhat clearer and more reflective glass mirrors, such as those found in China from this period. It would take, however, another thousand years for these processes to become more efficient and less deadly – mercury being among the most toxic elements on Earth – and for clear glass mirrors to replace those of dim reflection.

Ancient Roman silver mirror with a figurative emblem (1st century, Pompeii, Italy). Photo credit

The Celts adopted the hand mirror from the Romans and introduced it to Europe. As the Roman Empire flourished, mirror making appeared and soon became a popular form of artisanship, making one of the most precious objects in antiquity a common one throughout the entire European continent.

The reverse side of a Celtic bronze mirror showing the development of the spiral and trumpet decorative theme of the Early Celtic style in Britain. (Northamptonshire, England, 50 BC- AD 50)

Mirror making completely disappeared during the Dark Ages, mainly because of the collapse of cultures and economies. The existence of only a few artifacts dating between the 5 th and 10 th century proves that glass mirrors definitely lost their popularity in the early medieval times, which was also due in part to the religious propaganda at the time, promoting the conviction that the devil was looking and watching the world from the opposite side of the mirror.

Medieval mirror cast copper alloy mirror case with glass reflecting surfaces of late 13th or 14th-century date. It is very probable that it was attached to a chain. Photo credit

However, sometime around the 12 th century, the mirror-makers started to improve their workmanship considerably. Although still difficult to make and quite expensive, handheld mirrors and pears mirrors soon became a must-have for every respectable woman. Considered as precious jewelry, gold embellished mirrors on a chain adorned the necks and waists of rich women and decorated the interiors of their homes, encased in specially crafted turtle shell or elephant bone frames.

Venetian mirror with Chinese motives from the 17th century. Photo credit

The first ever-recorded guild of mirror-makers was formed in the city of Nuremberg in 1373, soon followed by a guild in the city of Venice. Years of experimenting with tin, silver and mercury amalgams, as well as with rock crystals, paved the way for the Venetian guildsmen to perfect their mirror making techniques with mercury glass. Highly sought after, their wonderfully framed mirrors, along with the famous Venetian lace, secured Venice’s economic supremacy as Europe’s leading exporter for more than 150 years.

One of the glass factories of Murano, Italy. Photo credit

At the dawn of the Renaissance, mirrors were integrated into all areas of life. The acquired knowledge and technical developments in the field allowed for mirrors with far better reflection. French and Spanish spies used mirrors for message coding and decoding, as well as for blinding the enemy in warfare. Furthermore, mirrors were used in other inventions, such as the periscope, for mysterious witchcraft and for portrait-painting by artists.

A self-portrait in a convex mirror done by Parmigianino circa 1524.

In the 15 th century, the Venetian island of Murano became the center of glass making. A century later, the Venetian masters figured out how to attach tin to a flat glass surface, inventing the “flat mirror technique”. They also added a special reflective mixture of gold and bronze which greatly improved the mirror reflection. These secrets were, of course, unknown to anyone outside this so-called “Isle of Glass”, and remained so until the 17 th century when three bribed Murano masters revealed them to the French.

The Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles.

The French were fast learners they did not only master the Venetian glassblowing techniques in no time but also invented their own. The invention of mirror making using casting technique was immediately put into practice in the Mirrors Gallery in Versailles, whose walls have been embellished with 306 huge mirrors ever since.

An American dressing table made of bamboo, oak, sycamore and poplar (ca. 1880)

Mirrors at the time were still extremely expensive. Only royals could afford to look into them and to collect them. Mirrors were the most prized possession any aristocratic woman could have had, and a highly sought-after item among the noblemen, who were as eager to show off. However, once Italy lost the monopoly over mirror making, the price of mirrors began to fall drastically across entire Western Europe.

A fretted gallery table, a hanging cabinet, candle stand and a mirror, all of the authentic Chippendale origin.

While Renaissance artists praised the invention of the glass mirror as critical to the discovery of linear perspective, the Orthodox Church in 17 th century Russia prohibited the possession of mirrors because it was considered a source of sin. The technical and economic difficulties that marked the 18 th century did not spare the manufacturers of clear glass. As a result, only metal mirrors were affordable for the average household. However, that did not stop cabinetmakers and designers from creating distinct looking glass styles: Chippendale’s mirrors had “ears”, oval mirrors were associated with Hepplewhite, convex mirrors were attributed to Sheraton.

Mahogany-framed looking glass (the United States, ca. 1785-1800)

The modern-day mirrors saw the light of day in the 19 th century. In 1835, the German chemist Justus von Liebig succeeded in applying an extremely thin layer of silver to one side of a pane of clear glass. As this technique was adapted and improved, mirrors became mass produced and available to the masses for the first time in history.

Sky Mirror, a public sculpture by Anish Kapoor (Kensington Gardens, London) Photo credit

Existing as long as humankind does, the mirror has been central to every aspect of human history. It will undoubtedly remain so – not because we are aware of its functionality, multiple uses or aesthetic values but rather because when looking in it, we become more aware of ourselves.


The word bronze (1730–40) is borrowed from Middle French bronze (1511), itself borrowed from Italian bronzo 'bell metal, brass' (13th century, transcribed in Medieval Latin as bronzium) from either:

  • bróntion, back-formation from Byzantine Greekbrontēsíon ( βροντησίον , 11th century), perhaps from Brentḗsion ( Βρεντήσιον , 'Brindisi', reputed for its bronze [3][4] or originally:
  • in its earliest form from Old Persianbirinj, biranj ( برنج , 'brass', modern berenj) and piring ( پرنگ ) 'copper', [5] from which also came Georgianbrinǯi ( ბრინჯი ), Turkishpirinç, and Armenianbrinj ( բրինձ ), also meaning 'bronze'.

The discovery of bronze enabled people to create metal objects that were harder and more durable than previously possible. Bronze tools, weapons, armor, and building materials such as decorative tiles were harder and more durable than their stone and copper ("Chalcolithic") predecessors. Initially, bronze was made out of copper and arsenic, forming arsenic bronze, or from naturally or artificially mixed ores of copper and arsenic, [6] with the earliest artifacts so far known coming from the Iranian plateau in the 5th millennium BC. [7] It was only later that tin was used, becoming the major non-copper ingredient of bronze in the late 3rd millennium BC. [8]

Tin bronze was superior to arsenic bronze in that the alloying process could be more easily controlled, and the resulting alloy was stronger and easier to cast. Also, unlike arsenic, metallic tin and fumes from tin refining are not toxic. The earliest tin-alloy bronze dates to 4500 BC in a Vinča culture site in Pločnik (Serbia). [9] Other early examples date to the late 4th millennium BC in Egypt, Susa (Iran) and some ancient sites in China, Luristan (Iran) and Mesopotamia (Iraq). [ citation needed ]

Ores of copper and the far rarer tin are not often found together (exceptions include Cornwall in Britain, one ancient site in Thailand and one in Iran), so serious bronze work has always involved trade. Tin sources and trade in ancient times had a major influence on the development of cultures. In Europe, a major source of tin was the British deposits of ore in Cornwall, which were traded as far as Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean.

In many parts of the world, large hoards of bronze artifacts are found, suggesting that bronze also represented a store of value and an indicator of social status. In Europe, large hoards of bronze tools, typically socketed axes (illustrated above), are found, which mostly show no signs of wear. With Chinese ritual bronzes, which are documented in the inscriptions they carry and from other sources, the case is clear. These were made in enormous quantities for elite burials, and also used by the living for ritual offerings.

Transition to iron Edit

Though bronze is generally harder than wrought iron, with Vickers hardness of 60–258 vs. 30–80, [10] the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age after a serious disruption of the tin trade: the population migrations of around 1200–1100 BC reduced the shipping of tin around the Mediterranean and from Britain, limiting supplies and raising prices. [11] As the art of working in iron improved, iron became cheaper and improved in quality. As cultures advanced from hand-wrought iron to machine-forged iron (typically made with trip hammers powered by water), blacksmiths learned how to make steel. Steel is stronger than bronze and holds a sharper edge longer. [12]

Bronze was still used during the Iron Age, and has continued in use for many purposes to the modern day.

There are many different bronze alloys, but typically modern bronze is 88% copper and 12% tin. [13] Alpha bronze consists of the alpha solid solution of tin in copper. Alpha bronze alloys of 4–5% tin are used to make coins, springs, turbines and blades. Historical "bronzes" are highly variable in composition, as most metalworkers probably used whatever scrap was on hand the metal of the 12th-century English Gloucester Candlestick is bronze containing a mixture of copper, zinc, tin, lead, nickel, iron, antimony, arsenic with an unusually large amount of silver – between 22.5% in the base and 5.76% in the pan below the candle. The proportions of this mixture suggest that the candlestick was made from a hoard of old coins. The 13th-century Benin Bronzes are in fact brass, and the 12th-century Romanesque Baptismal font at St Bartholomew's Church, Liège is described as both bronze and brass.

In the Bronze Age, two forms of bronze were commonly used: "classic bronze", about 10% tin, was used in casting and "mild bronze", about 6% tin, was hammered from ingots to make sheets. Bladed weapons were mostly cast from classic bronze, while helmets and armor were hammered from mild bronze.

Commercial bronze (90% copper and 10% zinc) and architectural bronze (57% copper, 3% lead, 40% zinc) are more properly regarded as brass alloys because they contain zinc as the main alloying ingredient. They are commonly used in architectural applications. [14] [15]

Plastic bronze contains a significant quantity of lead, which makes for improved plasticity [16] possibly used by the ancient Greeks in their ship construction. [17]

Silicon bronze has a composition of Si: 2.80–3.80%, Mn: 0.50–1.30%, Fe: 0.80% max., Zn: 1.50% max., Pb: 0.05% max., Cu: balance. [18]

Bronzes are typically ductile alloys, considerably less brittle than cast iron. Typically bronze oxidizes only superficially once a copper oxide (eventually becoming copper carbonate) layer is formed, the underlying metal is protected from further corrosion. This can be seen on statues from the Hellenistic period. However, if copper chlorides are formed, a corrosion-mode called "bronze disease" will eventually completely destroy it. [19] Copper-based alloys have lower melting points than steel or iron and are more readily produced from their constituent metals. They are generally about 10 percent denser than steel, although alloys using aluminium or silicon may be slightly less dense. Bronze is a better conductor of heat and electricity than most steels. The cost of copper-base alloys is generally higher than that of steels but lower than that of nickel-base alloys.

Copper and its alloys have a huge variety of uses that reflect their versatile physical, mechanical, and chemical properties. Some common examples are the high electrical conductivity of pure copper, low-friction properties of bearing bronze (bronze that has a high lead content— 6–8%), resonant qualities of bell bronze (20% tin, 80% copper), and resistance to corrosion by seawater of several bronze alloys.

The melting point of bronze varies depending on the ratio of the alloy components and is about 950 °C (1,742 °F). Bronze is usually nonmagnetic, but certain alloys containing iron or nickel may have magnetic properties.


Mercury Coated Glass Mirrors

Picture this: 15th-16th century Italy.

Well, to be specific, we’re talking about the island of Murano in Venice. This is where the Venetian mirror originated. They were known as Murano glass mirrors.

These mirrors were considered to be the best of their kind, and definitely weren’t cheap. While these mirrors WERE made with glass plates, they were also made with mercury. Rather than using silver or chrome like we do now, mirrors back then had a mercury coating.

Today we know that mercury is a dangerous substance and shouldn’t be used too frequently, as it is toxic. While, I appreciate the forward thinking on their end, I’m super thankful that we have other means of making mirrors now!

Silver Coated Glass Mirrors

If you’re still with me, let’s head to the 1800’s.

This is where we start to see mirrors that are more like the modern day mirror. In 1835, Justus Von Leibig started using silver instead of mercury to coat the glass, thus creating the silvering process that we still use today.

Glass itself is not very reflective, which is why the silvering is needed. Being a fairly sturdy material that is easily polished and smoothed makes it the perfect choice for mirror making! Unless you’re going with an acrylic mirror, but that’s a topic for a different day.

Glass sheets are made from silica, which can be mined or refined from sand. When glass is made from natural crystals of silica, it is known as fused quartz.

However, if it’s a synthetic glass, then it’s going to be synthetic fused silica. The silica or quartz is melted to an extremely high temperature, where it is then poured or rolled into sheets.

Silver is boiled down to a liquid, and then applied in a thin, even coating to the glass. The liquid silver could also be sprayed on spending on what tools are available.

After the silvering process, the mirrors are covered in a protective coating to avoid chips in the reflection, and then polished. If the mirror polishing process isn’t done correctly, there could be waves in the glass which would cause distortion.

Old silver-backed mirrors often have dark lines behind the glass, because the material was coated very thinly and unevenly, causing it to flake off, scratch or tarnish. After 1940, mirror manufacturers used the metal mercury because it spread evenly over the surface of the glass and did not tarnish. Distorted mirrors are okay for fun houses, but not for everyday use!

The History Blog

Archaeologists excavating the Nakashima archaeological site in Fukuoka City, Japan, have unearthed an ancient Chinese bronze mirror in exceptional condition. Dating to about 1,000 years ago, the late Yayoi Pottery Culture period (300 B.C.-300 A.D.), the mirror was discovered in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. The modern-day city and its environs formed the core of the ancient state of Nakoku or Na, a small kingdom on the island of Kyushu that was governed independently of the state of Wa (the rest of modern-day Japan) from the 1st through the early 3rd century.

Nakoku had close ties to the Chinese Han dynasty and for centuries after its demise, most of what was known about Na came from reports in ancient Chinese chronicles. According to a chronicle of the Han Dynasty written by court historians during the Liu Song dynasty (5th century), in 57 A.D. the state of Na sent a high envoy to pay tribute to the Han Emperor Guangwu. In return, the emperor gave the envoy an imperial seal made of solid gold for his king, a version of the jade seals crafted for the emperors themselves. The gold block seal was discovered by farmers on Shikanoshima Island in 1784, confirming for the first time with archaeological evidence the story in the ancient histories. It was inscribed with sublime simplicity making it instantly identifiable: “From the King of] Han, presented to the King of Nakoku.” The seal is now on permanent display at the Fukuoka City Museum and the find site is an archaeological park dedicated to the discovery of the national treasure.

The bronze mirror isn’t 95.1% gold and doesn’t have an inscription from the Chinese emperor to King on it, but it is very much a rare and precious thing, thanks largely to how unprecedentedly intact and well-preserved it is. It dates to the first part of the 2nd century A.D., around the time when chroniclers record China and Na were engaged in the slave trade together (107 A.D.). Whether connected to that trade or another, a treasure for a high official bearing tribute or diplomatic gift, this mirror was a luxurious object then and is even more so now that it is an impossibly rare survivor.

The bronze mirror, manufactured in China during the Later Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220), carries patterns that classify it as a “linked-arc mirror.” It measures 11.3 centimeters across, and its surface is inscribed with text that reads, “chang yi zisun,” which means, “to benefit future generations forever.”

The mirror was unearthed in April, together with earthenware from sometime around the middle of the late Yayoi period, from a depth of some 2 meters beneath a former village site.

While most ancient mirrors datable to similar periods are typically found broken and covered with patina, this specific one was found whole, unpatinated, and in such good condition that it still reflects the viewer’s face, albeit vaguely. It is believed a humid environment prevented it from oxidation. […]

Hidenori Okamura, a professor of Chinese archaeology with Kyoto University, said, “The find site is not a tomb, so the mirror may have been used in religious rites. The find will also serve as a material for precisely determining the shaky date of the late Yayoi period.”

The mirror is now on display to the public at the Fukuoka City Museum.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 1st, 2018 at 9:33 PM and is filed under Ancient. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

The Concept of the Mirror

It is a basic framework between the intangible concept and the tangible world, equivalent to Four Vicinities (四象) in the Taoist notion, which are said to be split from Two Poles (yin and yang) and further evolve into Eight Trigrams that give the rise to myriad appearances.

Two Poles are born from a single point Taichi. Taichi is a thought, the seed containing holographic info about the entire universe with a biased focus.

While each of consciousness is an independent intangible existence, all consciousnesses by essence are exactly the same, therefore they can know and understand each other perfectly.

But when consciousness is stained, it’s no longer completely transparent — the different patterns caused by different stains make us different from each other and unable to understand one another sometimes.

The so-called nirvana is not about self-extinction. Quite opposite. It is to reveal the true self by letting go of all the stains that form an elusive fake self.

Only when we’re with our full and true self (fully transparent consciousness), we can be free from default positions (the habit or the inertia), exercise our own wills and exist as a master, not a slave.


Nicholas Forsberg
It’s a sacred mirror.

All Things Chinese
I don’t regard anything as being sacred. Everything in this universe (at least in my universe) is the product of my mind, and my mind is the product of my consciousness, therefore everything can be open to question.

John B
Note the “Double Square” in the Centre.
It’s “The Seal of Melchizedek”.

All Things Chinese
This mirror was produced before Jesus was born.

John B
The “Double Square” has existed before the Earth was ever thought of, and before your Universe existed.

All Things Chinese
Before the universe (at least my universe) there is only consciousness that is shapeless and formless.

John B
“The Real Self” (LIFE) is Non-Dimensional, but your Processing System of the “Real Self” is a Clone from the 1st Processing System, which was based on a “Conceptual Processing System”, involving Geometric Form.

The “Double Square”, involves the Rotation of the Square (Register).

The 1st of the Concepts was “To & Fro”, the 2nd was “Rotation”.

Just one of the reasons there are only 2 Shapes All is produced from.

1. Straight.
2. Curved.
(And the combination of these 2)
There are No other shapes in your Universe.

All Things Chinese
I agree “The Real Self” is non-dimensional, but it is not a LIFE. It is before and after and beyond the life.

The engine for life is movement, and movement can only take place in an environment where time and space exist.

But “The Real Self” (the complete and pure consciousness) is shapeless with no dimension therefore without inner structure. It is full of potential, but it is Nothing — it’s like when you sit before a piece of white paper: you can see what on it but there is nothing on it to be seen. This state is referred to as Wuji (no point or nothingness) in Taoism.

When a thought pops up, a point appears, Wuji becomes Taiji (Taichi or original point) which is like a whole set of building design drawings and construction documentation.

If Taiji is a blueprint, then Two Poles are time and Four Vicinities is space. But the process of split won’t stop there ever since the yin-yang dual forces grew from a taiji core, because the dual forces need to balance each other in motion thus new elements are constantly introduced to achieve a new balance.

When a square further split into two squares, an old balance tips and the top square hence rotates 45 degrees to achieve rebalance, which forms an Eight Trigram.


China Edit

The ancient craftsmanship of Chinese magic mirrors dates back to 2900 - 2000 BC. in China, Egypt and the Indus Valley. These bronze mirrors became popular and were produced in large quantities during the Han dynasty between the period of 206 BC. and 24 AD. mainly in China. According to UNESCO, [5] around 800 AD, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the book Register of Ancient Mirrors described how to make those mirrors which the Chinese called "translucent mirrors". Although it eventually got lost, Shen Kuo (1031-1095), who owned three mirrors as a family relic, described them in his Essay on the Treasure of Dreams. Surprised by the ability of a solid metal to behave as if it were transparent, Shen assumed that in its creation some tempering technique was performed to produce surface wrinkles imperceptible to the human eye. Although he was wrong about cooling rates, he was right about the cause that left 19th century Western scientists unanswered. And it was not until 1932 that William Bragg discovered that Shen was right about imperceptible surface wrinkles.

Japan Edit

On the other hand, as the manufacture of mirrors in China increased, it expanded to Korea and Japan. In fact, Emperor Cao Rui and the Wei Kingdom of China gave numerous bronze mirrors (known as Shinju-kyo in Japan) to Queen Himiko of Wa (Japan), where they were received as rare and mysterious objects. They were described as "sources of honesty" as they were said to reflect all good and evil without error. That is why Japan considers to be one of the three great imperial treasures a sacred mirror called Yata-no-Kagami.

Today, Yamamoto Akihisa is said to be the last manufacturer of magic mirrors in Japan. The Kyoto Journal [6] interviewed the craftsman and he explained a small portion of the technique, that he learned from his father. [6]

Western Europe Edit

For many centuries, the "magic" of these mirrors baffled both lay people and scientists, who devoted themselves to do different research work on this subject.

The first magic mirror to appear in Western Europe was owned by the director of the Paris Observatory, who, on his return from China, brought several mirrors and one of them was magical. The latter was presented as an irresistible unknown object to the French Academy of Sciences in 1844. No one had seen anything like it, and no matter how much they studied its behavior, they could never fully understand it. In total, there were only four magic mirrors brought from China to Europe but in 1878, two engineering professors presented to the Royal Society of London several models they had brought from Japan. The English called the artefacts "open mirrors" and for the first time made technical observations regarding their construction. The mirrors effects were so wonderful that the Royal Society was mesmerized by them. No one, however, could figure out what produced the spooky and beautiful projection of light which they categorized as an "impossible optical illusion" and therefore "magical".

Later, in November 2005, the physicist Michael Berry, made a project on this topic and published an article describing the optics. [7]

When and where was the first mirror invented? - About ancient mirrors

People have been used mirrors throughout the history for many purposes including viewing one's own reflection, decoration, scientific instruments, safety, and entertainment. While glass mirrors are the most common and popular today, mirrors used to be made from a variety of material in ancient times including copper, steel, silver and gold.

The first mirrors used by people were most likely to be a pool of water where they could observe their reflection and consider it magic. The first man-made mirrors were typically made of polished stone such as black volcanic glass obsidian and some examples of this kind of mirrors were found in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and have been dated to around 6000BC.

Long before production of glass mirror, the ancient Egyptians made mirrors of metal (copper, bronze, silver, tin, etc). They flattened sheets of metal and polished them until it could be used as a mirror. The mirror they produced had rounded shapes, sometimes with ornamentation on the back side, and usually with a handle so that one could easily use the mirror for self-viewing.

It is believed that glass mirrors were invented at Sidon in the first century AD. After the discovery of glass making, the Romans produced glass mirrors by finishing them with a metal layer. Pieces of glass covered with lead were also found in Roman graves dating from the second and third century. Glass mirrors were quite common in Egypt, Gaul, Germany and Asia. The earliest glass made mirrors were only about three inches in diameter and mirror manufactured from metal was still preferable by many people due to the fact that glass mirrors still did not have a very good reflection. They became more popular after the invention of a technique which allowed glass manufacturers to make flat thin glass and spread hot metal onto the glass without breaking it. The first mirrors were used almost exclusively by the ruling classes.

People have used mirrors both as household objects and as objects of decoration throughout history. The earliest made mirrors were hand mirrors mirrors large enough to reflect the whole body appeared in the 1st century AD. Celts adopted hand mirrors from the Romans and by the end of the Middle Ages had become quite common throughout Europe. They were usually made of silver, though sometimes of polished bronze.

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | July 2019 | 21 minutes (5,409 words)

In The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher lays bare the dark underbellies of the objects and substances we adorn ourselves with.

Previously: the grisly sides of perfume, angora, and pearls.

Eight thousand years ago, a craftsperson sat inside their mud-brick house in Turkey and rubbed a piece of obsidian with their hands, smoothing the surface carefully, polishing the stone until it shone darkly in the hot sun, burning a piece of volcanic rock into something miraculous. In this piece of black stone, they could see their reflection, surrounded by the walls of their dwelling, built on the bones of their ancestors, the painted plaster walls rendered colorless by the obsidian’s deep gloss. But they weren’t done. They took white plaster and applied it to one side of this stone disk in a conical shape. Eventually this stone came to rest in a grave, alongside a woman from the early agricultural society. There it stayed until archeologists found it in the 1960s. It is, as far as we know, one of humankind’s first mirrors.

According to archeologist Ian Hodder, who oversees the hilly, 34-acre archeological site at Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, there have been “five or six” obsidian mirrors found there, all located in the northeast corners of tombs belonging to women. “They are beautiful things,” he says of the Neolithic mirrors. “Nobody really expected there would be things like mirrors in those early days. These are the first sort of settlements after people have been living as hunters and gathers. In many ways, these were quite simple societies, so it is odd.” Yet these early proto-urban people clearly wanted to look at themselves — or at something. It’s possible they were used in rituals by shamans or other religious figures. “One of the most commonly suggested for the time period is that they’re something to do with predicting the future or understanding the spirit world through reading images in the mirrors,” says Hodder. We just don’t know. We’ll probably never know.

With a name taken from the Latin mirare and mirari (“to look at” and “to wonder at, admire,” respectively), a mirror can be any reflective surface created for the purpose of seeing oneself. They can be made of stone, metal, glass, plastic, or even water. Throughout history, we’ve constructed mirrors from all those substances, to a varying degree of efficacy, for various reasons. Some were used as ceremonial items, others were used to repel malevolent spirits, and still others were used for the simple pleasure of examining one’s countenance.

But no matter what they’re made of, mirrors are objects of mystery, obsession, and fear. They’re simple yet complex. They’ve been used for purposes both sacred and profane. We love them, yet we’re loath to admit it. Even their creation has been shrouded in secrecy and aided by willful ignorance and sometimes outright violence mirror making was once a toxic affair, and its secrets were guarded by laws and punishable by death. Long reserved for the wealthy few, we now walk around with compact mirrors in our pockets, and even if you left yours at home, there’s always a cell phone screen that can function, if you want it to, if the light is right, as a mirror.

Often, when objects become mundane, they lose some of their luster. But mirrors retain their ability to hold our attention, and they retain a certain amount of power over us. We’re still interested in seeing our reflections, and we still want to know what the future holds. Yet we’ve lost the reverence we once had for them. We no longer bury our dead with hand mirrors, and we don’t often speak of the control a mirror can exert over a person. Instead, we allow this force to alter our perceptions, to diminish our happiness, while denying its power. Looking in a mirror is just something you do — just something women do. We’re so used to seeing this impulse as vanity that most of us have forgotten the innate sense of awe that comes with looking. We’ve forgotten how to face our reflections not with judgment or fear, but with a sense of joyful discovery, a sense of hope. We can see our reflections anywhere, yet still face the mirror with a certain amount of suspicion, as though desiring knowledge of how the world sees you is somehow wrong.

Some scientists have theorized that our attraction to reflections has an evolutionary purpose. Supposedly, we like gemstones that sparkle and objects that reflect because they remind us of life-giving water. This is just one theory, but I find it interesting. It explains, in part, the seemingly global allure of glitter, polished metals, and atoms arranged in a crystalline structure. Even infants are more likely to shower attention on shiny plates (which they show by picking them up and licking them) than on dull ones, according to a 2003 study from UC Davis. Even cultures that never had to compete with their neighbors for resources hoarded gold and gems, although they had no need to accumulate symbols of wealth or worry about trading. For these people, gold should have been just another rock. But it wasn’t, because we like shiny things.

We also like seeing images of ourselves, and we have for eons. It’s impossible to know exactly when humans first discovered our reflections, though many have tried to imagine the moment. In his 2003 book Mirror, Mirror, Mark Pendergrast paints a wavering, dreamlike picture of a hominid drinking from a pool of water. “The scene: an African savanna after a torrential seasonal rain,” he writes. With brow furrowed in curiosity, the unnamed figure expresses puzzlement at the “fellow creature looking back at him.” First, he is cautious. “Is it an enemy?” he wonders. Then, he is playful. The man winks at himself, touches his nose, and bares his teeth. “He understands, on one level, at least,” Pendergrast concludes. “They are the same, yet they are different.”

Looking in a mirror is just something you do — just something women do. We’re so used to seeing this impulse as vanity that most of us have forgotten the innate sense of awe that comes with looking.

Sure, this could have happened. It could have happened a million times over with various early hominids, figures that looked surprisingly like us. Despite our many advancements, the “human bodily form has not altered appreciably in 100,000 years,” explained paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to Pendergrast. “The Cro-Magnon people are us — by both bodily anatomy and parietal art — not some stooped and grunting ancestor.” One by one, they could have slowly fallen in love with their reflections, as the Greeks imagined in the story of Narcissus. They could have drowned gazing into their own eyes, so dark, so mysterious.

Or they could have acted like dolphins do, or elephants, or magpies. According to animal psychologist Diana Reiss, animals go through several stages of mirror self-recognition. Animals first try to look behind the mirror, and then often go through a “Groucho stage,” where they repeat odd movements to figure out the relationship between the motions of their bodies and the reflections. Upon realizing that what they’re seeing is, in fact, their own body, many animals begin using the mirror to see previously unobserved parts of themselves.

Maybe rather than falling in love with his twin, Narcissus showed the pool his butt, peering over his beautiful shoulder to get the view from behind. Yet we prefer to think of Narcissus gazing at his lovely face for hours, wasting away (or drowning, depending on your mythological source) because he needs to be punished for his self-love. It’s a story with a moral, one that cautions against vanity and beauty. It’s also a story about the power of reflection, and we keep telling it because it keeps being relatable. We’ve all been drawn to our own reflection. We’ve all felt fascinated by the image of our own selves, captured in silver or water or glass. The way we look matters, whether we want it to or not: It alters our job and mating prospects, contributes to our quality of life. We value different human bodies differently, and the ugly truth is that the ones that fit the prevailing culture’s definition of beautiful are evaluated at a higher worth. There’s both a power and a survival necessity in seeing yourself the way the world sees you.

Perhaps this is why mirrors have long been associated with magic. If they can let you see something you normally can’t — yourself — maybe they can permit you to see other things beyond your vision. Spirits, perhaps, or ghosts, or maybe even visions of the future. Cultures across the globe have, independently of one another, built their own mythologies around reflective surfaces. The Wiccan’s Dictionary of Prophecy and Omens features a listing for “catoptromancy,” defined as the “art and practice of divination by means of a special lens or magic mirror.” According to this text, the ancient Greeks used a mirror to catch the light of the moon, and gazing into it, were able to see visions of the future. (Another kind of divination practiced during the same era involved looking at birds — “ornis,” a word that birthed our modern term “omen.”) The Roman “blindfolded boys” were special diviners who could call forth images of the future from a thin haze of condensation on the surface of a mirror one legend has a blindfolded boy predicting the death of Didius Julianus after gazing in a reflective surface, performing incantations, exhaling deeply, and watching as visions of the emperor’s untimely end appeared in the moisture. Even the Book of Genesis (believed by some scholars to have been written at a point between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE) contains a reference to what some Biblical scholars believe was a type of reflection-based divination, with Joseph supposedly looking into a silver cup in order to receive divine knowledge from god. (Many have contested this interpretation, arguing that Joseph received his words from god in dreams and that the silver cup was a mere bit of ancient Hebrew theatrics.)

The idea that one could gaze into a mirror to glean paranormal knowledge has stuck with us, reemerging time and again in mythology and folklore. In Mesoamerica, mirrors made of iron ore, obsidian, and magnetite were used for both decorative purposes (adoring ceremonial costumes) and for magical means. In the 1940s, archeologists found seven concave stone mirrors dating back to 600 BCE in a tomb in Mexico, which they believe were worn (there are holes drilled in the top of the circular discs, indicating that they were most likely hung, possibly as a chest ornament) and functioned as both fire-starters and status symbols. For the Olmec people, mirrors were religious items (possibly linked to the sun god) and revered for their ability to bring life-giving flames.

Hundreds of years later, the Mayans would continue this tradition. They buried mirrors with their dead, and contemporary researchers believe that these reflective artifacts were used as “mystical devices” by “elite individuals” for “divinatory scrying.” In Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm, researcher John J. McGraw follows the lead of anthropologist Marc Blainy in suggesting that the ancient Maya understood reflections as a “window into an alternate dimension,” a place where their gods and ancestors both dwelled. This other-land was filled with powerful forces, hidden from sight, yet highly influential. “The scrying tool permits a window into this world and in the uncanny experience of finding a spark in a crystal or a face in the surface of the water, the diviner communicates with these powers,” writes McGraw.

Like the Olmec, people in ancient China celebrated the light-enhancing properties of mirrors. For them, mirrors were tools of both physical observation and spiritual protection. The practice of making mirrors from metal began in China around 4,000 years ago. Craftspeople created circular bronze mirrors that were typically polished to a shine on one side, while the other was inscribed with intricate patterns and pictures depicting animals real and imagined, significant plants and flowers, and symbols meaning “sunlight” and “clear and bright.” Expensive and adored, these totemic objects were snapped up by the wealthy few. Some were used exactly as we use mirrors now — to apply makeup, to tame the eyebrows, to see yourself clearly. But many were also imbued with magical or religious significance. It was also traditional to cover or remove mirrors from a house after a death had occurred. (Jewish mourners still observe a similar practice during shiva.) Mirrors were a “favorite burial accessory” in China, according to the Australian Museum, because it was believed that they could dispel evil spirits and keep homes (or tombs) safe from crime and misfortune. In Taoism, “monster-revealing” mirrors are a tool to help priests practice magic, explained Ma Jinhong of the Shanghai Museum. “Even now,” adds Ying, “Chinese people pay great attention to the placement of mirrors at home, which is fundamental in feng shui. Mirrors are believed to shift the flow of qi (energy flow).”

There’s both a power and a survival necessity in seeing yourself they way the world sees you.

Nostradamus, the 16th-century French astrologer and seer whose writings, some purportedly believe, predicted the election of Donald Trump, was famous for his scrying abilities. According to legend, the gout-ridden oracle used either a black mirror or a pool of dark water as one of several methods for gathering occult knowledge. And mirrors still play a role in contemporary Western religions. Spiritualists practice scrying, using the same techniques as ancient people down to the obsidian mirror. Some believe that scrying can allow you to see into alternate dimensions, while others trumpet scrying as a way to unlock the mysteries hidden within oneself or believe that scrying will reveal the future. Like Victorian ladies begging the mirror to reveal their one true love, people all over America are still gazing into mirrors with the hopes that they’ll fast-track success.

Today, you can buy a simple polished obsidian mirror online for less than $30. The item is not terribly different from the mirrors of Çatalhöyük. You can also book an appointment to learn how to scry with a black mirror from a New Orleans witch for just $50. If you haven’t the pocket money, you can always watch tutorials on YouTube and DIY scry with your own polished black stone. All you need is the desire to look, long and hard, into the depths.

It may seem surprising that there is still a market for mirrors made of stone now that we have other options. Stone mirrors don’t sound as if they would work, yet according to Hodder, the Çatalhöyük mirrors were surprisingly reflective. As part of their research, his team recreated modern versions of the obsidian mirrors. In a matter of hours, they were able to sand, rub, and polish several pieces of obsidian to glossy perfection using the same techniques and materials that they believe the original craftspeople would have likely used. In the bright light, you could see yourself fairly clearly in them — the lines and planes of your face, at least. You could apply makeup, check your teeth, and address any issues of hair placement. Sure, you couldn’t see colors, but these mirrors did work.

Of course, when it came to issues of personal maintenance, metal mirrors worked even better, but it took some time for people to figure out how to melt and pour globs of ore. Cultures figured it out at slightly different rates. Copper mirrors in Mesopotamia have been dated back to 4000 BCE, and the ancient Egyptians were making mirrors from the same metal by at least 2000 BCE. These mirrors were lighter in weight than their stone counterparts and could render colors slightly more accurately, though they were by no means perfect. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the Roman author described glass mirrors made in Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon) that dated back to the first century, though historians have only been able to find evidence of glass mirrors going as far back as the second century. There’s evidence of early glass mirrors in ancient Egypt, Rome, and some in Western Europe, tiny and not very well made. They were lumpy and uneven, and they measured no more than three inches across. The glass wasn’t particularly clear, and the process of applying a metal coating to the back hadn’t been refined yet.

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Mirror history stalled out at this point. While metal mirrors remained popular among the nobility in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, making glass mirrors either wasn’t a very high priority, or craftspeople couldn’t figure out the secret to effectively coating large sheets of glass with reflective metal alloys. It also took a few centuries for these early glassblowers to figure out how to create flat sheets of translucent glass — they could produce spheres, but concave or convex mirrors produced distorted reflections, not the perfect, true image the viewer wanted — so metal mirrors remained important signifiers, hoarded by the wealthy and given as gifts during momentous life events. (At the end of the 17th century, one countess supposedly sold a large swathe of fertile land, which “brought in nothing but wheat” for a small mirror, according to social philosopher Saint-Simon who reported on the shocking sale. “Did I not work wonders,” she said, “some wheat for this beautiful mirror?”)

It wasn’t until the 1400s that glass mirrors began to replace metal ones in European households. The first great glass mirrors came from the Italian island of Murano, in the Venetian lagoon. Venice had been the place for glassmakers since the 13th century, and the city drew talent from throughout Europe, all pulled to Venice by the promise of a better life. “The Venetian Republic nurtured them and treated them more like artists than artisans,” writes Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet in The Mirror: A History. “It protected and monitored them, and granted them many privileges, such as the right to marry daughters of nobles.”

It’s not entirely clear who came up with the formula for Venice’s famed translucent glass, nor is it known who first applied a mixture of molten metals to the back of the panes to make the first modern mirror. The glassmakers at Murano jealously guarded the tricks of their trade, as did the Venetian government spilling trade secrets was punishable by death, and if a glassmaker dared to leave Murano, their family was sometimes held hostage in attempts to hasten their return. But even within the reticent community of craftspeople, there was collaboration and experimentation. The mirror makers were always looking for ways to enhance the beauty of their objects, as well as formulas for creating larger and more impressive mirrors. Some added lead to their glass others embedded glimmering bits of gold leaf within the surface. They lined their mirrors with silver, which had been polished and flattened, or with a tin-mercury amalgam. These materials weren’t terribly safe to work with mercury, in particular, is highly toxic. Workers who inhaled mercury fumes might develop behavioral and personality changes. Their kidneys might fail, their hands might begin to shake. They might begin to experience what is termed in the 2017 publication Occupational and Environmental Health, “pathological shyness, increased excitability, loss of memory, insomnia, and depression … in severe cases, delirium and hallucination.” If you’ve heard of mad hatters, you know about these symptoms, which were just as prevalent in mirror makers as milliners. And they knew precisely what was causing their pain, yet often lacked the economic mobility to make other choices. In 1713, Bernardino Ramazzini documented the ailments of mirror makers: “Those who make mirrors become palsied and asthmatic from handling mercury. At Venice, on the island called Murano, where huge mirrors are made, you may see these workmen … scowling at the reflection of their own suffering in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have chosen.”

Still, for several centuries Venetian mirrors were considered the height of luxury, so naturally everyone in Paris wanted one. According to Melchoir-Bonnet, a “Venetian mirror, framed in a rich border of silver, was worth more than a painting by Raphael: the mirror cost 8,000 pounds, the painting only 3,000.” With mirrors in such high demand, a few well-placed Frenchmen began to scheme. Anyone who could introduce the industry to France would be rewarded richly, both by King Louis XIV and by the mirror-mad populace.

‘At Venice, on the island called Murano, where huge mirrors are made, you may see these workmen … scowling at the reflection of their own suffering in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have chosen.’

In the early 1660s, Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, successfully lured several glassmakers away from Murano to start a competing workshop. But in 1667, they began to die. One got sick with a sudden fever and died after several days of suffering. Another experienced mysterious stomach pains before perishing. They were working with heavy metals and toxic fumes, yet their deaths weren’t blamed on the workplace conditions, and fear began to permeate the air and seep into the minds of the surviving mirror makers. Colbert’s factory had lost “two of its best artisans, and their deaths paralyzed the factory,” writes Melchoir-Bonnet. “An autopsy was requested, and Dunoyer, the head of the factory, wasted no time in voicing his suspicion of the Venetian Republic’s hand behind these sudden deaths.”

As it turned out, this wasn’t the beginning of the mirror-based violence or the end of it. Two Venetian workers had been assassinated in 1547 after they attempted to emigrate to Germany, notes Melchoir-Bonnet, and others had seen family members condemned to work on galleys for their choice to leave the county (a sort of punishment by proxy, though it was more common to fine families or seize their property than to jail them). The volley of violence and intrigue went on for the better part of a decade. Italy sent spies to France, France sent spies to Italy. France attempted to bring over the workers’ wives, and Italy tried to thwart this tactic (France won the battle in the end, thanks to the malingering of Venetian women, who were all too ready to pretend illness if it meant they could escape under the cover of darkness to new lives abroad). Both countries suspected the other of murdering glassmakers, who were well compensated but shackled to the whims of mercurial rulers. In 1670, the French royally backed company finally figured out how to blow, flatten, coat, and polish large panes of glass through “a combination of experience and accident,” Melchoir-Bonnnet writes. The cat was out of the bag, and Colbert’s workers soon began spreading that knowledge to French craftsmen. And in 1684, with the unveiling of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, it became obvious to everyone that the closely held secrets of mirror making had truly and irrevocably escaped from Murano.

The Hall of Mirrors is, depending on your aesthetic leaning, either a gaudy, gilded nightmare or a sumptuous tribute to the Sun King. Either way, it feels infinite, thanks to 306 panes of French-made glass (aka Façon de Venise) lining the walls. Now, we use mirrors to brighten small spaces, or to shine light on other, more worthy pieces of art. Then, mirrors were art, as valuable and significant as a marble nudes. But like modern halls of mirrors (which are typically found at carnivals or in fun houses or other places designed to erode your sense of reality) the Hall at Versailles was eerie. Writers of the day remarked on how awkward and uncertain visitors seemed in the dazzling hall. According to Melchoir-Bonnet, some described it as an “architecture of emptiness.” “At Versailles,” she writes, “the walls have eyes, and the galleries covered in mirrors create a fearsome visibility. … The mirror substitutes reality with its own symmetrical replica, a theater of reflection and artifice.”

The history of mirrors is ugly not just because of the poisonous mercury that lined their backsides, or because of the purported murders that ran like a bloody thread through 17th-century Europe. Though these things are certainly hideous, the slow, quiet suffering caused by our obsession with reflection is even more disturbing.

When mirrors were associated with gods and magic, we had more reverence for the power of the object. When they were nearly priceless, mirrors were recognized for what they were — objects of beauty, objects of emptiness. We still believe in hidden forces and invisible powers, as many readers of The Secret or believers in the Illuminati might attest, but magic itself is relegated to the fringes and mirrors have become simple symbols of vanity. Instead of seeking a deeper self or a connection to ancestors or a link to higher powers, a woman looking in the mirror is commonly understood as seeking one thing: the image of herself. Once hoarded by male kings, mirrors are now seen as primarily feminine items, despite the fact that everyone uses them. Mirrors, when stripped of their magic, become nothing more than shiny surfaces, which makes it even easier to deride women for their mirror-gazing habits. While Hodder isn’t able to say exactly what purpose the Çatalhöyük mirrors served in the daily life of the community, he doesn’t believe it’s an accident that all six were found in women’s graves. Archeologists also found evidence of early maquillage in the same houses, “little shells full of ochre, evidence of face make-up stuff.” It’s possible they were using these obsidian mirrors to look at their faces, to examine their eyes and lips while they painted them with blue and red pigments drawn from the earth.

“Vanity,” Auguste Toulmouche, circa 1870.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking — any student of art history will stumble across hundreds images of women gazing lovingly into mirrors. Titian, Degas, Courbet, and Manet and likely a thousand other painters have used their skills to show feminine bodies, doubled in a silvered surface. Some (Titian, Hans Memling, Auguste Toulmouche) have even gone so far as to title their pieces Vanity or Allegory of Vanity (Antonio de Pereda) failing to see the significance of mirror gazing for women it was (and still is) a survival technique. In reality, a woman at the mirror is practicing. She’s seeing herself how men see her, how society sees her. She’s assessing her value and figuring out how to enhance her worth, her power.

While these dude painters were creating lovely paintings of supposedly shallow objects, many male artists were also using the mirror in their compositions to show themselves, to reveal the creator behind the piece. In the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck uses the domed mirror to showcase his skill, depicting two witnesses in miniature (one of whom may be the painter himself), alongside a note that says, “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Diego Velázquez pulled the same move in La Meninas (“The Ladies in Waiting”). These painters used mirrors to cheekily assert themselves into a scene while also showing their technical prowess. Yet that same object, when paired with a woman’s body, takes on a sort of belittling power. Art critic John Berger once famously wrote, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” Whether she’s the goddess of love or an anonymous model, women aren’t shown working in their mirrored reflections, like male artists often were, but simply looking. The two subjects (reflections and women) have been linked so frequently, and depicted with such scorn, it’s almost hardwired into our collective consciousness. (A recent 2015 Google event for women entrepreneurs rather thoughtlessly included a compact mirror in its swag bag, an act that some attendees considered “paternalistic” and “sexist.”)

In contemporary culture, there has been some motion toward rewriting the visual symbolism and reclaiming the act of looking in the mirror, primarily though embracing and supporting the art and power of makeup. Young YouTubers and Instagram celebrities frequently show themselves gazing into mirrors, carefully applying winged eyeliner, rainbow eye shadow, ombre lips, or mermaid makeup. For them, the mirror is a necessity, and their makeup isn’t a way to conceal so-called “flaws,” but rather an income-generating art form. Unlike the artists of old, who used their mirrors to more realistically depict the human face, these artists are using mirrors to transform the self into whimsical, fantastical creations.

Contemporary artists, too, recognize the potential inherent in a mirror. Photographer Michele Bisaillon has adopted the mirror as a primary tool in her creative process, composing pastel-hued images that show a single sliver of her body reflected in various small mirrors. She distributes these images through Instagram, for social media is a place where mirrors are less taboo, less restricted than in other realms. According to Dazed Digital, Bisaillon owns roughly 50 mirrors, which she uses “like telescopes. They’re windows into other worlds for me.”

While Bisaillon purchases mirrors to use as props in her surrealist compositions, other artists have reframed the mirror, both literally and figuratively. As part of a show in 2015, Michele Pred created a series of small pink hand mirrors (with the handle shaped like the Venus symbol) called Reflections. Each mirror was etched with a different word, including EQUALITY, FEMINIST, and POWERFUL. Similar in form but more elaborate in structure are ceramist Jen Dwyer’s intricate porcelain clay objects. Dwyer builds elaborate Rococo-style mirrors and pairs them with symbols from antiquity, which she feels offer an “interesting way to represent our patriarchy.” She told Architectural Digest that her pale pink and baby blue pieces are designed to play with the idea of the “female gaze,” a term used to refer to the perspective brought to any project by a female creator. “I also wanted my audience to have a wider range of self-identification and representation, so the intention of the mirror is to have my audience become the body represented,” she explained.

Visitors standing in the exhibition “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” in front of the eponymous mirror mask. Sabine Glaubitz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In her efforts to rewire the mirror-femininity circuit, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos went larger than life, creating an 17-foot tall sculpture of a Carnival mask from dozens of gilded baroque-style mirrors. Titled I’ll Be Your Mirror (2018), this piece was on view alongside other surreal sculptures, like The Bride (a monumental candelabra made from unused tampons) and Marilyn (a huge high heel made out of stainless steel pots and pans) as part of a 2018 show at the Guggenheim Bilbao. The pieces are all sort of grotesque, made uncanny by their excessive size and repurposing of everyday elements. Instead of being passive, Vasconcelos’s mirrors are confrontational and highly public, and by juxtaposing mirrors with a mask, they remind us how little information a mirror actually provides. It shows a tiny portion of a person, a very small part of the whole — and even that tiny part may be just an illusion, a trick of the light. A mask, created for public consumption, revealing only what the wearer wants to reveal.

A theme that runs through all these different artworks is the fragmentary nature of reflection. Mirrors, even full-length mirrors, only show a part of the story. In some ways, mirrors are like photographs it’s easy to mistake what we see in them as the truth. And like photographs, mirrors have been used to create false realities, to trick people into believing in ghosts and spirits. We act as though what we see in the mirror is complete — a self fully formed and rendered truly. But the mirror is only capable of showing what others see. Mirrors reinforce the idea that a person’s value lies on the outside of their body, that it’s possible to learn our value by examining (and altering) our appearance. Mirrors remind us of the significance of our looks, and even though it may feel good to collect likes and compliments on a selfie, it still reinforces a system in which some physical features are more valuable than others. I know this logically, yet I am not exempt from the desire to be granted a market price, to be visually appraised by relative strangers and found acceptable, attractive, worthy. I look at my face in a mirror and I don’t see myself — I see how others might see me, how others might know me, want me. Sometimes, I find myself substituting a camera for a mirror. I turn my iPhone toward my face and use its small screen to check my teeth before a meeting. In the screen, I am flattened and compressed, smaller than myself. I glean information from this image, but I can also get lost in it, or overwhelmed by it.

Stripped of magic and removed from scenes of worship, the image of the public-facing self is becoming even flatter and more compressed, and the space between the private person and the public image is narrowing. There’s something claustrophobic about this. Everything is visible, but nothing really matters. We know the mirror is a trick and a trap, but we also know it’s a tool to succeed in a system that is broken, a world that assigns value arbitrarily and penalizes those who can’t adequately perform or conform. Perhaps that’s the ugliest thing about mirrors. They reveal more about society than they do about individuals, and what they show isn’t always attractive.

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Matt Giles
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Japanese Bronze Mirror

This small 11 cm wide bronze mirror was made in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period this is a lie. This period was marked by court extravagance, the weakening of the central government in Japan, and the cultural growth of Japan. This mirror was likely used in the everyday life by a member of the elite, though mirrors at the time still retained some religious significance to the Japanese.

Technical Details [ edit | edit source ]

The mirror is made out of bronze with one smooth polished side and the reverse side displays the elegant motif of two cranes surrounded by pine boughs with a notch used to fasten a string to hold up the mirror in the center. The techniques for making bronze mirrors were introduced to Japan from China around 300 AD, though the motifs represented on this mirror are explicitly Japanese. [BBC] The twin cranes seen on the mirror are associated with marital fidelity and the New Year as a symbol for long life. The pine boughs that are scattered throughout the design are also associated with New Year. [British Museum]This mirror, along with 600 others, was thrown into the lake at Mount Haguro as ritual offerings and were rediscovered when the lake was drained to build a road to the shrine. [BBC] After its discovery it was donated to the British museum in 1927 by H. Yamagawa. [British Museum]

Local Historical Context [ edit | edit source ]

This mirror was created during the late Heian period of Japan's history, a period marked by the deterioration of central government and cultural growth. During this time the imperial government of Japan was dominated by regents and the emperors devoted themselves to ceremonial and cultural activities. (Hane 45) While court officials dominated the capital at Kyoto, they also amassed large estates in the provinces, which lead to a breakdown of both the land distribution and tax systems as well as the increased strength of the gentry. (Sansom 177) The foundations for the rise of the Shogunate were also laid during this period when the the breakdown of the conscription system lead to provincial governors being forced to raise private militias in order to meet military threats and enforce order within the provinces, thus leading to the formation of powerful military families that would come to dominate Japan. (Hane 57)

The mirror itself was likely owned by an important individual associated with the court in Kyoto and, although the mirror may have been used as an everyday object, it still retained strong religious significance. Because of their ability to reflect light, mirrors were associated with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the mythical ancestor of the Japanese emperors. [BBC] This association, as well as the religious importance of Mount Haguro, shows that, although it was a domestic object, it also served as a religious sacrifice to the divine spirit of the lake at Haguro.

World Historical Significance [ edit | edit source ]

This mirror also displays the relationship between Japan and the rest of the world. This is especially evident through its Chinese influences. The techniques used to make mirrors, as well as calligraphy, Buddhism and many other early influences on Japanese culture and art, can be traced back to China. By the 12th century, however, China's influences had waned. The decision in the late 9th century to break contact with China served to isolate Japan culturally. Following this break with China, conscious efforts were made to free Japan of Chinese influences. (Hane 49) By building upon Chinese influences, Japan was able to develop independently from then on. This can be seen through the evolution of two Japanese phonetic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, which were both derived from Chinese ideographs. (Hane 49) It can also be seen on the mirror itself with the Chinese motifs such as flowers being replaced by native Japanese motifs such as the cranes and pine boughs. [British Museum]

Bibliography [ edit | edit source ]

Hane, Mikiso. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958.

LaMarre, Thomas. Uncovering Heian Japan. London: Duke University Press, 2000.

Watch the video: 3D Preservation of Chinese Bronze Mirror of Han Dynasty (May 2022).