“Mirrors were invented in order that man might know himself, destined to attain many benefits from this: first, knowledge of himself; next, in certain directions, wisdom. The handsome man, to avoid infamy. The homely man”—but here we must interrupt the Loeb translator of Seneca the Younger, who has succumbed to an attack of the euphemisms. Deformis means ugly, deformed, odious, disgusting, base. “Homely” doesn’t cover it at all. “The ugly man, to understand that what he lacks in physical appearance must be compensated for by virtue. The young man, to be reminded by his youth that it is a time of learning and of daring brave deeds. The old man, to set aside actions dishonourable to his grey hair, to think some thoughts about death.”1

This is Seneca’s answer to the question: What was the intention of Nature in creating real objects, and providing reflections as well? What is the meaning of the reflectibility of the material world? Above all, he asserts, mirrors were not made for shaving in front of. Or rather, as he puts it, “Surely it was not in order that we men may pluck out our whiskers in front of a mirror or make our faces smooth. In no respect has nature made a gift of hard work to luxury.”2

The abuse of mirrors is a subject on which Seneca waxes hot, suspiciously hot. He tells us in some detail the story of one Hostius Quadra, whose slaves grew so sick of his licentiousness that they eventually murdered him, an act which the Emperor Augustus not only refused to condemn but even seemed to condone. Hostius lusted after both men and women, and, Seneca tells us,

He had mirrors made of the type I described (the ones that reflect images far larger) in which a finger exceeded the size and thickness of an arm. These, moreover, he so arranged that when he was offering himself to a man he might see in a mirror all the movements of his stallion behind him and then take delight in the false size of his partner’s very member just as though it were really so big.3

Seneca’s ostensible moral purpose is to remind us that “crimes avoid the sight of themselves,” that it requires a particular baseness to take delight in the viewing of one’s own misdeeds. But as the story is elaborated, and we learn more about what actually went on in this sexual hall of mirrors, we begin to wonder whether what we are being told is true, or whether this moral essay is not rather an exercise in pornography. The Loeb translator seems to think the latter, since he chooses to remind us in a footnote about “gossip that Seneca, in addition to adulterous affairs with women, took delight in older boys and taught this vice to Nero.”4

What would these magnifying mirrors have been made of? A trawl through the various histories of technology seems to confirm that it could not have been plate glass, or indeed the blown glass of the typical Renaissance convex mirror. A metal sheet, of burnished silver or gold or bronze, beaten concave or bent in a single plane like a distorting fairground mirror, would no doubt have done the trick. But Seneca himself implies elsewhere that full-length mirrors, though they existed, were exceedingly rare, and cost “more than the dowry of ladies long ago, the dowry that was given at public expense to the children of penniless generals.”5 Are we to suppose that Hostius surrounded himself with such mirrors “on all sides”?

Are we to suppose that Archimedes actually succeeded, by means of a concave mirror, in focusing the heat of the sun and thereby burning the Roman fleet as it attacked Syracuse? Are we to believe, as the magician Roger Bacon believed, that Julius Caesar set up mirrors on the coast of Gaul, with which he observed what was going on in Britain? (One imagines a huge periscope, like a siege tower, pointing from the Pas de Calais toward the swamps of London.) We know that Moses, an early killjoy, melted mirrors: “He made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8). There are no mirrors in Homer, but Virgil had a mirror which survived in the treasury of Saint-Denis. It was oval in shape, very thick, and made of lead glass; the man who dropped it in the eighteenth century was called Dom Mabillon.

For as long as people did not understand the process of reflection, a mirror could be an unnerving thing. Seneca tells us that there are two opinions about mirrors:

Some think that replicas are seen in mirrors; that is, that the shape of our body has emanated and separated from our body. Others believe that there are no images inside the mirror but that the body itself is seen because eyesight is bent back and reflected on itself again.6

And he tells us that some mirrors one is afraid to look into: “They reflect such a deformity from the distorted image of the viewer; the likeness is preserved—but made to look worse than it is.”7 Imagine how he would have responded to the mirror mentioned in a 1543 inventory of the Duke of Lorraine, which tells us that at the château of Nancy there was “a strange mirror in which one sees another, rather than oneself.”


It is common to find, in depictions of Renaissance interiors, that the convex mirror on the bedchamber wall is equipped with knobs on either side, on which to drape a parted curtain. The implication is that when the mirror was not in use the curtain would be arranged in front of it, perhaps to protect it from being scratched or fly-blown, perhaps because it was believed that this would stop it from fading or darkening (the silvering of such mirrors being unstable), perhaps as it were to turn it off, to prevent it looking at the room (as if it might seem like an eye—these convex mirrors were known as bull’s-eyes). Another explanation occurred to me on reading this quotation from Aristotle, with which Richard Gregory kicks off his recent book on mirrors:

If a woman looks into a highly polished mirror during the menstrual period, the surface of the mirror becomes clouded with a blood-red colour (and if the mirror is a new one the stain is not easy to remove, but if it is an old one there is less difficulty). The reason for this is that…the organ of sight not only is acted upon by the air, but also sets up an active process, just as bright objects do; for the organ of sight is itself a bright object possessing colour.8

It may have been thought, in other words, that—the organ of sight being active—too much looking at a mirror would wear it down, or cloud it over.

Perception has its history, as well as its psychology. The tiger hunter’s wife who, for as long as her husband is out hunting, must not comb her hair, or so much as glimpse her reflection (or her husband will instantly die), belongs to an age when mirrors were magical. As does her unfortunate sister, the Lady of Shalott, who is cursed, contrariwise, to gaze only on reflections in the mirror. If she looks out directly on the world, the mirror will crack and she will die. (If Tennyson’s mirror is made of glass, it is of course an anachronism.) The “Mirror of Virgil,” which Dom Mabillon broke, was the mirror of Virgil the Magician rather than Virgil in his role as epic poet. It sat in the treasury of Saint-Denis along with a unicorn’s horn, a griffin’s claw, and one of the original vases from the Marriage of Cana in Galilee.

When the Church’s taboo against mirrors was broken and the art of mirror-making was revived in the Middle Ages, a process was invented whereby glass was blown into a sphere. While the sphere was still hot, a mixture of tin, antimony, and resin or tar was passed down the glass-blower’s pipe. This was the silvering agent. The sphere when cool could be cut either in two or into several pieces. This was the method of manufacture for mirrors of the type seen in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, but also for the smaller, more common hand mirrors or girdle mirrors in regular domestic use.

When I mentioned, in a recent review of Dora Thornton’s The Scholar in His Study, that such mirrors were used like magnifying glasses, and to focus light, more than one reader raised the objection that a convex mirror does not magnify, and cannot focus light.9 It is a concave mirror which magnifies. The objection is a just one. The story is however complicated by the fact that convex mirrors were used in situa-tions where we might expect a concave mirror to be more useful. They were used in studies and they were used in barbershops.

Vasari tells us that Parmigianino decided to make his own portrait after looking at himself in “a convex barber’s mirror.”

And in doing this, perceiving the bizarre effects produced by the roundness of the mirror, which twists the beams of a ceiling into strange curves, and makes the doors and other parts of buildings recede in an extraordinary manner, the idea came to him to amuse himself by counterfeiting everything. Thereupon he had a ball of wood made by a turner, and, dividing it in half so as to make it the same in size and shape as the mirror, set to work to counterfeit on it with supreme art all that he saw in the glass, and particularly his own self, which he did with such lifelike reality as could not be imagined or believed. Now everything that is near the mirror is magnified, and all that is at a distance is diminished, and thus he made the hand engaged in drawing somewhat large, as the mirror showed it, and so marvellous that it seemed to be his very own.10

If Vasari is right about the working method (as he seems to be), we may deduce that the barber’s mirror was 24.4 centimeters in diameter (just under ten inches), like the hemispherical panel on which the self-portrait was painted. The hand which is near the mirror is not magnified—it merely appears large in relation to the head and shoulders. But one certainly thinks of it as magnified.


The learned knight Fra Sabba di Castiglione, who owned several mirrors, no doubt had a concave version as well as the more usual convex ones. How concave mirrors were made, and of what they were made, I cannot find out from the literature. They seem to have been rare. Fra Sabba, moralizing after the manner of Seneca, tells us that when the worldly man is moved by love of affection (and here I correct Dora Thornton’s transla-tion, which somehow had “convex” for concavo),

he uses a concave mirror, which gives such a magnified reflection of the natural object that his eyelashes, hair and the hairs of his beard look like the bristles of an old wild boar, or the twigs of a besom, and his teeth like those of an old Turkish horse, older than mine, which was fifty years old. But when a man is moved by envy, and by hate, he uses another mirror, made of glass, but very small, which reflects the object so much diminished from its real size that it makes it tiny, so that it reduces a man’s face from its actual size to that of a child.11

Such moral qualities of mirror use form part of the theme of Jonathan Miller’s London exhibition on reflection in art and the handsome catalog that accompanies it. The mirror can symbolize prudence as well as vanity, self-knowledge as well as self-deception.

Narcissus, we are reminded, in the original legend, fell in love not with himself but with his reflection, which he assumed to be another being. This was his punishment from Nemesis for trifling with the affections of those who fall in love with him. That makes Narcissus, as Miller points out, somewhat stupider than a chimpanzee—the only other animal than man capable of recognizing its reflection as being a reflection of itself.

In his audio guide to the exhibition, Miller reflects on the fact that Western art offers numerous paintings of women contemplating their own image in a mirror—some of them erotic, some illustrations of vanity, and some of them apparently quite neutral (a woman, say, checks her appearance in a mirror before leaving the house). By contrast, the number of paintings of men checking their appearance in a mirror are rather few. Men are not shown at their toilet—indeed they are not shown in the nude in a domestic setting. (Caillebotte’s male nude bathing, currently on loan to the National Gallery in London, is a notable exception.) The male nude is for conventionally agreed-upon public spaces—the platforms of the academy, the Cross, the riverside bathing place, the battlefield even—rather than for the bedroom or any male equivalent of the dressing table.

But the early moralists of the mirror thought in terms of men observing their own reflections. Seneca’s young man, observing himself in the mirror in order to be “reminded by his youth that it is a time of learning and of daring brave deeds,” does not become a subject for painting, excepting in this important sense: the morality of the virtuous mirror is the morality of the self-portrait. How well Seneca’s conception applies to Parmigianino’s self-portrait: he was almost twenty-one, but he looks like a child; he has set himself a difficult and unusual task, and has mastered it with brio; the painting says: here is a young artist who will dare to do brave deeds. Miller cannot have had the painting or reproduction in front of him when he wrote that, “were it not for the anamorphic distortion of the foreground hand, the presence of the mirror would be undetectable.” He has forgotten the window and the ceiling, which are also distorted. And he has forgotten that the picture itself is a visual pun: it looks exactly like a barbershop mirror “in which one sees another rather than oneself.”

The exhibition, one of the small-scale shows of which London’s National Gallery has made a specialty, brings paintings from the gallery’s own collection together with loan material, special displays, and much more text and photographic material than one would find in the usual type of show devoted to painting. The works are chosen in order to illustrate points about the psychology of perception, the way an artist depicts reflective and nonreflective surfaces, the way the viewer interprets them. As the catalog text explains, reflection is understood both in terms of the optics of reflective surfaces and as an aspect of symmetry. A Rorschach blot is offered for comparison with a Monet riverscape. Many of the points made are quite simple but no less necessary for that. Miller quotes from Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing:

Water is expressed, in common drawings, by conventional lines, whose horizontality is supposed to convey the idea of its surface.

In paintings, white dashes or bars of light are used for the same purpose.

But these and all other such expedients are vain and absurd. A piece of calm water always contains a picture in itself, an exquisite reflection of the objects above it. If you give the time necessary to draw these reflections, disturbing them here and there as you see the breeze or current disturb them, you will get the effect of the water; but if you have not the patience to draw the reflections, no expedient will give you a true effect.

Everything said seems perfectly obvious, but how obvious would it have been to Ruskin’s students before he said it that those conventional lines used to convey the surface of water are vain and absurd?

Here is a typical passage from Miller:

In most situations, the incidental reflectiveness of glass compromises its intended purpose: to allow the observer a clear but protected view of what lies behind. That is why window-shoppers are often to be seen with their noses pressed to the glass, using both hands to shutter off the light which is responsible for the distracting reflection. In art galleries, where such a procedure is justifiably forbidden, visitors can exploit the alternative strategy of shifting their gaze from left to right. One reason for doing this is that the offending reflection may be fainter from one position than it is from another. But even if it is not, as the viewpoint shifts, the imagery reflected from the front of the glass moves in the opposite direction to the imagery behind it, and although this differential movement may be quite slight, it recognisably enhances the intelligibility of the picture behind the glass.

The shop-window experience seems familiar and obvious, while the gallery experience, though familiar (and irritating), is not obvious. This leads to a description of a situation where the viewer may make a conscious decision to pay attention either to the picture behind the glass or to the view offered by the reflection, to switch at will from one to another. And this in turn connects with a description of the classic “cocktail party phenomenon,” in which we appear able to switch attention from the conversation we are immediately engaged in to one going on at the other side of the room. And so we move from the visual to the acoustic analogy, and back again, to illustrate the difficulty of understanding how such cognitive choices are made.

High art is here juxtaposed with the ephemeral in a way which made at least one critic queasy, but which seemed to me both enlightening and engaging. The Rokeby Venus rubs along perfectly well in such company—for the duration. And there is a great deal of Miller’s own taste on display in the choice: German painting of the early nineteenth century (Johann Erdmann Hummel’s wonderful canvas of the Granite Bowl in the Lustgarten, Berlin, and the accompanying study of the bowl being polished; see illustration on opposite page), a nude from the same period by the Norwegian Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a work from St. Petersburg by an unknown artist of the nineteenth century, depicting two women in conversation—paintings which have been encountered in a peripatetic life and stuck in the mind. These are among the works of art which have always helped to influence and enrich Miller’s work as a stage director.

For it has often been Miller’s practice to use as inspiration for a theatrical production some “look” derived from the visual arts. I remember several years ago a ravishing La Traviata done on a small budget for the Kent Opera, in which the inspiration had come from the photographs of Nadar. A period is chosen for a production not only for the historically appropriate idiom it offers but also for the possibilities raised by some source of visual inspiration: Hopper’s Nighthawks in the diner, for instance, suggesting the last act of Rigoletto. In this sense Miller has always been in the first instance his own designer.

About twenty years ago we went together round the Dahlem Museum in Berlin, in search of a gesture. It is the gesture in which one hand is laid along the side of the face, and the head slightly tilted. It occurs in On Reflection in four examples from Dürer: it might denote melancholy, Christ’s sorrow at the sins of the world, or Sloth or Acedia, or, in the case of Joseph in the drawing of the Holy Family, plain old exhaustion on the flight into Egypt. It was enjoyable to repeat the experience of museum visiting, this time with an electronic Jonathan Miller dangling on my ear. It felt as if he had perched on my shoulder. He is one of the best serious expositors of complex themes, and the London show has been a popular success.

It is interesting that, for one so absorbed in mirrors, he can confuse the difference between left and right. On page 178, discussing Dürer’s Erlangen self-portrait, he identifies the hand correctly in the main text as being the left, but in the marginal note he calls it the right.

The discussion on page 180 of the Dürer self-portrait drawing in the Lehman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art assumes that the hand depicted belongs to the head and shoulders on the same sheet. I don’t see this. I see a sheet of studies of a head, a hand, and a pillow. In the main text above the illustration the hand is assumed by Miller to be the artist’s right hand, while the marginal note implies that it is his left. Assuming that Dürer draws right-handed, the hand in question is either the artist’s left, viewed directly, or it is his right, viewed in the mirror. In the latter case, Dürer would have made the gesture, then picked up the pen and drawn the reflection from memory, repeating the process as often as necessary. Not a hard task for genius, but the former explanation seems more probable.

Miller has spent his life observing and thinking about gestures, and I hesitate to disagree with him. But I was not convinced by his account of Velázquez’s Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (see illustration on page 94), one of the painter’s bodegones with a religious twist. In the foreground, a young woman is at work with a pestle and mortar in a kitchen, while an old woman seems to be addressing her. To the right of this scene, in an illuminated square, Christ is talking to Mary (seated) and Martha, as recounted in Luke 10:38-42. The question is: Does this scene represent a picture hanging on the kitchen wall, a view through a hatch in the wall, or a reflection in a mirror?

The picture hypothesis seems least likely—one wouldn’t have hung such a picture in such a kitchen. The mir-ror hypothesis is embraced by José López-Rey,12 who goes so far as to assert that the National Gallery’s restorers touched up the frame of the mirror in order to make it look more like a hatch—an “oddly placed opening into a room beyond,” as Miller’s catalog puts it. By way of complete contrast, the organizers of the 1996 Edinburgh exhibition Velázquez in Seville told us in their catalog that it was clear from old photographs that the frame used to look very much more like a hatch than it does today.13 The mirror hypothesis has the attraction of explaining that the young girl, as she stares out of the canvas, is watching the scene which we see in the mirror. But did one, for that matter, hang so grand a thing as a mirror in so humble a place as a kitchen?

Miller tries to defend the mirror hypothesis: “From the fact that Jesus appears to be making a blessing gesture with his left hand, it seems likely that we are looking at a reflection of the scene.” But Christ’s left arm is not raised in blessing—it lies on the arm of his chair. Only the palm of the hand is slightly raised. Martha, driven to distraction by all the serving she has to do, has asked Christ to tell Mary to help her. Christ replies (rudely, you may think, since he is Martha’s guest): “Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her.” In other words: get your priorities right. The left- handed gesture that Christ makes to Martha is one of mild reproof.

Miller says that the young cook in the foreground is being nudged by the old lady and told “to get on with her work and mind her own business.” But it is inconceivable that a religious painting, even one with this degree of creative obliquity, should feature anyone so prominently telling the cook to ignore what Christ is saying. Quite the opposite. She is being told to pay attention. The old lady is pointing in the direction of the hatch.

The hatch appears less ambiguously in another Velázquez, his Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, in which the mulatto maid, probably a slave, seems to realize that something extraordinary is taking place in the next room. One could vary Auden’s poem and say that about cooking they were never wrong, the Old Masters: how well they understood its human position. Or, in the words of Saint Teresa of Avila: “The Lord walks even among the kitchen pots, helping you in matters spiritual and material.”

This Issue

December 17, 1998