The colorful journey of mirror through history

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Petra Bjelica
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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 3rd 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 5th and 10th 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 12th 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 15th 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 17th 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 17th century Russia prohibited the possession of mirrors because it was considered a source of sin. The technical and economic difficulties that marked the 18th 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 19th 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.

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