Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
Mirrors have been an obsession of humans for thousands of years, and this is made obvious in Western art, which uses the mirror both as a tool and a symbol.
The use of mirrors as vanitas symbols dates back to Greek mythology. The myth of Medusa, for example, shows the mirror being the key to defeating Medusa, who was the only mortal of the three gorgons. Another popular Greek example would be in the myth of Narcissus, by Ovid, in which we see Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection to a point where he is unable to leave the image, and wastes away to death beside the water. A popular depiction of this myth is seen in Carvaggio’s “Narcissus”,an oil painting done in 1599.
The painting reminds us that the reflection is only of Narcissus’ temporary beauty, which was only so because his vanity was his death. Another painting featuring a mirror is Clara Peeter’s “Vanitas”, a still life painted in 1610, which is a portrait of a woman sitting in front of a mirror.
Instead of more obvious symbols like skulls, a mirror was used to emphasize mortality. There are also many other symbols scattered throughout this painting, such as a dead, drooping flower, a pocket watch, and jewelry. These are all there to reflect the uselessness of material goods that we will leave behind when we die, and to remind us of the transitory nature of life. Mirrors are commonly seen as tools and symbols in other paintings as well, though may not always directly be vanitas. Jan van eyck’s 1433 oil painting “Arnolfini Portrait” is a great example of this.
It is a portrait of Italian merchant Giovanni Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, and was thought to be a wedding gift. It is considered to be one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art not only for its beauty, but also its complex iconography and orthogonal perspective. The artist makes clever use of a mirror to expand the space of the room, and one is able to see the reflection of the couple and the priest, giving the painting a unique feeling of immersion. The mirror itself is framed with ten images depicting the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mirror also symbolizes the eye of God, watching over the wedding vows. A spotless mirror such as this one can also be a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and purity.
So maybe the next time you see a mirror be aware or the wicked powers it contains.