ancient mirrors, Bag End, chiaroscuro, Claude Debussy, Egyptians, Etruscans, Georges de la Tour, Greeks, hall stand, Headington, Magic mirror, Maurice Ravel, Medieval, Miroirs, mirror, North Oxford, Parmigianino, Portrait of the Money-Lender and His Wife, Quentin Matsys, Reflections in the Water, Reflets dans L'eau, Renaissance, Romans, Snow White, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Victorian
Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
In English, we have the expression “upon reflection”, meaning something like “I’ve looked back at something and have considered (or reconsidered)”. When we look at the word “reflection”, we see its Latin origin, re “back/again” and flection, from the verb flecto, flectere, flexi, flexum “to bend/turn/bow” (we show all four of what are called the “principal parts” of the verb so that you can see where words like “flexible”—and, together with that re—“reflex” come from) and can imagine that, originally, it was almost a physical act—as if a person were believed literally to have turned back to a thought, event, action, to think about it again.
But that made us wonder about a reflection in a different sense—when an image is repeated, in water, say.
(And here we provide a YouTube LINK for a beautiful piece of music “Reflets dans L’eau”—“Reflections in the Water” by Claude Debussy—1862-1918, from the set entitled, Images, Book One—1905.)
Or in a mirror.
(This haunting painting is by Georges de la Tour, 1593-1652—known for his chiaroscuro—shadow-versus-light effects—style.)
Fancifully, we might ask: does a “reflection” in this sense suggest that the image in the mirror was turning back to look at the viewer? More realistically, we might say that the image is bent/turned back upon the viewer—but we also wonder if the Latin word from which our word mirror comes might give a certain flavor of the uncanny about it. Miror, mirari, miratus sum in Latin means “to wonder/be amazed at something” (Put the Latin preposition ad– on the front of this and you’re looking at English “admire”—originally “to wonder at something”—our modern sense of this has lost something of the wide-eyed nature implied in the original, but that’s how language works—sharp things, like knives, become dull with use. In Spanish, for example, mirar comes to mean “to look at/watch/observe”.)
Certainly, folktales and folk customs once preserved something eerie about mirrors. Think of the wicked queen’s magic mirror in Snow White.
If you know the Disney version of Snow White, you probably expected us to show this image.
But this so creeped us out as children that it was not our first choice!
In various western European countries, looking into a mirror on New Year’s Eve (lots of extra things to do: while combing hair, eating an apple, taking a bath first so that the mirror is steamy) will show you the image of your intended spouse. And breaking a mirror can mean seven years of bad luck.
and western Medieval people, as well,
mirrors were not very breakable, however, being commonly made of a piece of polished bronze (although there were attempts, apparently, from late classical times on to do something with glass and a metal backing). Artists in the classical world, rarely missing a chance to do something more, used the backs of mirrors as surfaces for decoration, as well. Here’s a very interesting Etruscan mirror back, including an inscription (it’s the story of Icarus and Daedalus).
Mirrors with a silvered back and glass cover, the direct ancestors of modern mirrors, appeared during the Renaissance.
This is a little joke—a self-portrait of the painter—which has been included in Quentin Matsys’ (1466-1530) painting “Portrait of the Money-Lender and His Wife” (1514).
(And, speaking of Renaissance paintings with mirrors, we couldn’t resist including this famous little painting by Parmigianino (1503-1540), a self-portrait painted on a mirror-shaped convex panel.)
If silver-backed, glass-covered mirrors only appeared in the Renaissance, however, what can we say about this object on the left house wall in this picture?
We can tell it’s meant to be a mirror as, looking closely, you can just make out the reflection of a tree which is outside to the right of the open door on its surface. And is that another mirror, on the piece of furniture in the foreground on the left? If so, it fits the kind of thing called a “hall stand” which one might see in a later-Victorian house—like this piece from the 1870s.
This makes us wonder once again: how much of this entryway depicts a Middle-earth based not upon the Middle Ages, but upon the memory of houses JRRT grew up in or perhaps furnishings from his own homes in North Oxford or Headington as an adult?
But we’ll save what appears to be a Gothic Revival chair there on the right for another day…
In the meantime, thanks, as ever, for reading!
We would like to take a moment and turn to the west to thank the Valar for the full recovery of our dear friend and fellow Tolkien enthusiast, EMH, from a serious operation. Get even well-er soon!
If you enjoyed the Debussy in the link above, perhaps you might also enjoy Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Miroirs (1906)—here’s a LINK.