Decoding Reflections: The Meaning of Mirrors in Art

Alternative realities and symbolism through paintings

Christopher P Jones

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Narcissus (1594–1596) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Christopher P Jones is the author of Exploring Art History, an introduction to some of the most pivotal topics in art history and appreciation.

Artists have long been fascinated by mirrors. In art, the reflection in a mirror becomes a portal into an “anti-world” — a more truthful version of our own.

Hence, the symbolic use of mirrors in art has often been to expand the limits of the subject matter, to reveal something that would otherwise lie out of sight.

Here I explore the different roles of mirrors in painting.

The Irresistible Mirror

Narcissus (1594–1596) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons

If there was ever an ancient tale that should speak to us today, then it is surely this one. The story of Narcissus warns of the danger of the irresistible mirror: the image of ourselves we can’t stay away from.

The Roman poet Ovid tells that Narcissus was punished for spurning the love of Echo, who attempted to win the handsome youth’s affection. His forfeit for rejecting her advances was his own freedom: one day, while passing by a stream, Narcissus caught sight of his reflection in the water and was entranced by its beauty.

Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas. 109.2 × 189.2 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

As John William Waterhouse shows in his depiction of Echo and Narcissus, he foolishly pursued the watery mirage whilst Echo watched on helplessly. Narcissus wasted away pursuing the image that captivated him, ultimately transforming into the flower that bears his name, while Echo faded away until only her voice remained.

Mirrors of Self-Knowledge

The Painter Hans Burgkmair and His Wife Anna (1529) by Lukas Furtenagel. Oil on panel. 60 × 52 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In 1529, the German artist Hans Burgkmair painted this self-portrait of himself and his wife, Anna. In the mirror before them, their two faces are reflected back as a pair of skulls.

Both look directly at the viewer, mournfully imploring us to understand their message: that death comes to all of us. The inscription on the edge of the mirror reads “Erken dich selbs” or “Know thyself”.

The painting reveals a premonition of death for both figures; the mirror stands as the truth-telling element in a world where self-deceit is common. The message is simple: If we are going to look at ourselves, then we ought to see what life truly has in store for us.

The Sinful Mirror

In artistic depictions of the Deadly Sins, various personifications are shown holding mirrors.

Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (c.1485) by Hans Memling. Oil in wood panel. 22 × 15 cm (each section). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Most conspicuously, the symbol of the mirror became closely connected with women and the sins of Lust and Vanity.

In a “vanitas” painting — expressing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death — a woman is usually shown looking into a mirror. Sometimes an inscription on a scroll announces the Latin Omnia Vanitas — “All is vanity”, with the figure surrounded by the earthly pleasures of jewels and gold coins. As in Hans Memling’s potent Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, the figure of Death appears too, underlining the link between vanity, futility and sin.

Yet, as the art historian John Berger pointed out, there was often hypocrisy in these artworks. A nude woman was painted looking into a mirror to attest to her self-absorption, thus condemning her while the male artist/patron could look at her nakedness with moral blamelessness.

The Truthful Mirror

The ability to see oneself as they truly are is considered a hallmark of wisdom for the bearer of the mirror. Therefore, Prudence, one of the four Classical Virtues, is often depicted as an allegorical figure holding a mirror, symbolising wise behaviour attained through self-awareness. She is also often shown holding a snake, which is derived from the biblical passage Matthew 10:16, “Be ye wise as serpents.”

Allegory of Prudence (1645) by Simon Vouet. Oil on canvas. 116.5 × 90.5 cm. Fabre Museum, Montpellier, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Similar to Prudence, the figure of Truth is frequently portrayed holding a mirror, with the reflection intended to be truthful. Truth is often depicted alongside Time, reflecting the concept that truth will eventually be revealed with the passage of time. This notion is supported by the ancient proverb Veritas filia temporis, which translates to “Truth is the daughter of Time.”

An Allegory of Truth and Time (1584) by Annibale Carracci. Oil on canvas. 130 × 169.6 cm. Windsor Castle, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In the painting An Allegory of Truth and Time (1584) by Annibale Carracci, Truth is shown naked as a way of expressing her unveiling. She can be seen holding a mirror, having just been lifted out of the depths of the well by her winged Father Time. She radiates light, while beneath her feet she treads all over Deceit. On either side, as personifications of the seasons, are Happy Ending (left) and Happiness (right).

The Worldly Mirror

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881–1882) by Édouard Manet. Oil on canvas. 96 × 130 cm. Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of mirrors representing some kind of “alternative truth” survived into modern painting, yet in the hands of great artists, given a self-conscious treatment.

Édouard Manet’s painting of the notorious nightspot the Folies-Bergère shows a barmaid standing before a large mirror. Her reflection appears to the right of the painting, talking to a man in a top hat and moustache.

Manet’s use of the mirror effectively reveals the world beyond the barmaid’s gaze, allowing us to adopt her perspective while also maintaining her as the focal point of the artwork. This technique provides an intriguing view of the transaction between the barmaid and the wealthy customer, presenting various moral dilemmas around modern notions of commerce, entertainment and the agency of women in modern society.

Woman at Her Toilette (1875/80) by Berthe Morisot. Oil on canvas. 60.3 × 80.4 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, U.S. Image source Art Institute of Chicago

Berthe Morisot’s portrayal of a Woman at Her Toilette brings us to the most modern depiction of mirrors. Here, the artist makes no moral claims on the subject: the portrait is pure representation. The effect is enhanced by her intricate and rapid brushwork, so that the mirror blends seamlessly with the tactile feel of the room. We don’t see her reflection in the mirror — rather, we observe a woman not as a spectacle but as a real presence, defying objectification.

All these paintings subtly build on the deep ambiguities of mirrors, employing the age-old symbol of vanity to expose different notions of identity, self-knowledge and versions of truth.

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