7 Famous Mirrors

7 Famous Mirrors (cont)

•7: The Mirror Crack’d

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

The curse of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s faerie Lady is such that she must only view the world through the mirror in her tower. If she should dare to look upon the world directly she knows a terrible fate will befall her, though she doesn’t know what that fate might be.

The passing of Sir Lancelot ‘flashing in her crystal mirror’ on his progress down to Camelot is her undoing. She wrenches her view from the reflection to gaze directly down on the handsome knight, whereupon her lifetime’s occupation, the magical web she weaves, floats out into the world, and her mirror cracks dramatically in two.

Things go from bad to worse after she finds an abandoned boat on the river, grabs a spare moment to paint her name on the prow, and launches herself off under the willows toward Camelot. Her robes of snowy white, as fetching as they may have looked in her lonely tower, are not much protection against the chilly night, and as she drifts along toward the castle singing a mournful tune, she freezes to death.

The moral to this story is:

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.


Well Acowlytes, that concludes the diversion that is 7 Famous Mirrors. I thank you for your indulgence.

7 Famous Mirrors (cont)

•6: The Eye of God

The Marriage of the Arnolfinis

Just when you hoped thought I might have forgotten about my 7 Famous Mirrors I am pleased to present for your edification #6 – Jan Van Eyck’s portrait ‘The Marriage of the Arnolfinis’.

The image of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami on their wedding is among the most recognizable of Renaissance paintings. The famous convex mirror, behind and between the Arnolfinis, holds a pivotal place in the picture’s composition.

The Marriage of the Arnolfinis Mirror Detail

Things to note about the mirror:

•It is unlikely that a mirror of the size depicted could have been made at the time of the Arnolfinis. Van Eyck has probably exaggerated its size to emphasize its symbolic importance.

•Experts speculate that the mirror is representative of the Eye of God watching over the wedding, an hypothesis which is further emphasized by the small medallions depicting the Passion of Christ inlaid around the frame.

• The mirror reflects two people standing in front of the Arnolfinis (that is, where we, the audience, would be standing if we were actually there). One of them, a figure in a blue smock, is thought to be the painter. The identity of the other is not known.

Thing is, whenever I’ve looked at this picture I’ve never been able to shake the kinda creepy feeling that the other figure standing there beside Van Eyck is… me

7 Famous Mirrors (cont)

•5: The Hubble Space Telescope Mirror

The mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope

Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey is credited with the invention of the telescope. Or at the very least, he is acknowledged to be the first person to try to put a patent on one. I read about Lipperhey a few years ago and was quite surprised to hear about him – like many people of my age I was taught in school that the first telescope was invented by Galileo Galilei. It was Galileo who made the first extensive annotated observations with a telescope, of that there is no doubt, but he must take his place in the queue when it comes to credit for the invention of that most marvellous of humankind’s augmentations.

Even Lipperhey was standing on the shoulders of giants. By now, it will not surprise you at all when I tell you that it was Leonardo da Vinci who, among his cornucopia of other spectacular ideas, first speculated on the possibility of magnifying the heavens, not with lenses, but with mirrors. Leonardo can wear the mantle of genius without any dispute.

In his notebooks, Leonardo writes about:

…making glasses to see the Moon enlarged… and advises would-be astronomers that …in order to observe the nature of the planets, open the roof and bring the image of a single planet onto the base of a concave mirror. The image of the planet reflected by the base will show the surface of the planet much magnified.

He has in fact outlined a principle that we would today find familiar as a reflecting telescope. Lipperhey and Galileo were viewing the night sky with refracting telescopes. Mirrors vs lenses, in other words.

Leonardo’s idea for magnifying the heavens is in spirit pretty much exactly like our miroir du jour – the six foot reflector installed at the heart of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The HST sits in Earth orbit far above the atmospheric haze that is our atmosphere and returns to us the most extraordinary images of the universe that we have ever seen. The Hubble Telescope optics consist of a fairly simple arrangement of mirrors called a Ritchey-Chretien Cassegrain system. Basically, a curved mirror not unlike the one Leonardo described, is reflected by a flatter convex mirror into the telescope’s electronic detectors.

For the crispest, most efficient management of the faint light of distant stars and galaxies, it is crucial that these two mirrors are made to the most exacting specifications. Specifically, the technical requirements for the main mirror are that it should not deviate from a perfect curve by 1/800,000th of an inch.

One can only imagine the swear words that resounded in the NASA control rooms when it was discovered, shortly after its deployment in 1990, that the Hubble Telescope had a significant fault in its main mirror. The mirror’s manufacturer, the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, had made some critical errors during the 10 year process of grinding and polishing the mirror, which resulted in serious degradation of the images returned from the telescope. The problem was eventually rectified, first by using computer algorithms to compensate for the distortion added by the mirror, and then by applying corrective optics in front of the mirrors.

All screw-ups notwithstanding, the mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope can definitely take its place among the most famous of humankind’s mirrors. The Hubble now approaches the end of its useful life, as NASA prepares for the installation of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2013. The JWST boasts a mirror more than three times the size of the Hubble mirror, and there is no doubt at all that it will show us sights of which we have never even dreamed.

And most amazingly of all, it will still use the very same principle outlined by Leonardo so many centuries ago.

7 Famous Mirrors (cont)

•4: Alice’s Looking Glass.

Tenniel Illustration from Alice in Wonderland

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There is, as I’m sure everyone knows, the sequel to Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book is littered with references to mirrors, beginning with Alice’s speculation (in a conversation with her cat – hmmm…) on what might lie on the other side of her drawing-room mirror.

In the manner of a true scientist, Alice’s conjectures quickly turn to experimentation and she finds that, with a minimum of effort, she can actually pass right through the mirror to the reflected world beyond.

Before long she discovers a book containing a poem:


sevot yhtils eht dna ,gillirb sawT`
ebaw eht ni elbmig dna eryg diD
,sevogorob eht erew ysmim llA
.ebargtuo shtar emom eht dnA

Which of course can only be read with the help of a conveniently handy mirror.

Indeed, the poem might well have been penned by our old friend Leonardo da Vinci, whose notebooks were famously written in a ‘mirror’ hand.

You’re probably thinking ‘Let’s see The Reverend include Leonardo in another installment of 7 Famous Mirrors!! Aha! As we shall see, Leo had more than a little part to play in the next of our mirrors…

7 Famous Mirrors (cont)

•3: Perseus’ Shield and the Gorgon.


And while we’re on the subject of polished shields…

Imagine the Reverend as a young whippersnapper sitting in art class. The earnest teacher is holding up a print of Caravaggio’s Medusa and waxing rapturously about the wonderful ‘circular form’ of the composition. She holds this painting to be a perfect example of the ‘circular form’ and blah blah blah blah… the young Reverend’s attention wanders to a box kite that he can see floating off in the distance above the sports field.

It was some years afterward in Florence that the genius of Caravaggio (or someone else – read on…) revealed itself to me. I was wandering through the corridors of the Uffizi when I came upon the original painting of Medusa that I’d seen in school. But not on a flat canvas as I’d always assumed. As the myth goes, Perseus couldn’t look at Medusa directly lest he be turned immediately to stone. To this end, Caravaggio painted the severed head of the Gorgon as we know Perseus would have seen it – reflected in his polished shield, shrieking in outrage as it flies away from his flashing blade (and its former neck). Of course it’s a great example of circular form – because it’s actually painted on a real circular shield†, a detail that my teacher either didn’t know, or failed to pass on in her enthusiasm for Caravaggio’s technique.‡

She also neglected to tell the most interesting part of the story, a snippet that would have certainly regained the attention of the young Reverend because it concerned a personage with whom the young Reverend was most intrigued.

Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa is famous, but it’s not as widely known that there is said to have been a previous, and therefore more original, version of the exact same idea, executed by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

The story of its existence is recorded by Giorgio Vasari, a 16th Century Italian architect and painter of moderate artistic accomplishments better known for his biographies of many other artists of his age. Among other things Vasari coined the term ‘Renaissance’ and wrote his Vita da Leonardo, a kind of Leonardo, This Is Your Life!

In the Vita, Vasari tells the story of a shield, or buckler, that was brought to Leonardo by his father for decoration. It appears that Leonardo was rather uncomplimentary about the workmanship of the shield, which was made by a peasant in his father’s service, but went on to make the best of a poor opportunity:

And afterwards, having given it a coat of gesso, and having prepared it in his own way, he began to think what he could paint upon it, that might be able to terrify all who should come upon it, producing the same effect as once did the head of Medusa.

Way to go Leo! He’s asked to decorate some homeware and chooses for a subject something designed to scare the shit out of viewers. Even as a young whippersnapper I knew that Leonardo da Vinci was my kind of guy.

The finished result, for which Leonardo derived inspiration from “…lizards great and small, crickets, serpents, butterflies, grasshoppers, bats, and other strange kinds of suchlike animals”, was, according to Vasari, so terrifying that Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, was taken aback with fear “not thinking that it was the buckler, nor merely painted the form that he saw upon it…” but the real thing!

Ah, those were the days!

It is not known what happened to the Leonardo buckler. Most likely Leonardo’s mum took one look at it and said to Ser Piero: “You put that thing in the cellar! I won’t have it in the loungeroom scaring the bejeesus out of my whist club! Tut. I don’t know. Where did we go wrong with that boy?”

If indeed the Leonardo shield was ever anything more than an apocryphal invention Caravaggio would certainly have known about it. When he was commissioned to do a version by his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the unspoken challenge to the painter would have been – “C’mon, Mick, old son, let’s see you top Leo’s effort!”


†In the Uffizi, the Caravaggio Medusa is displayed on a stand so that you can walk around it. It’s actually a real shield, although made of wood and not reflective brass (of course). The head is painted on the interior concave surface as Perseus would have had to have seen it, and is so masterfully done that it appears to be floating in space. It’s hard to convey the sense of delight that I had on realizing just what Caravaggio had done.

‡In my research for this piece I discovered that I’m not the only one who didn’t know that the Medusa is painted on a wooden shield. The method and medium is widely misunderstood to be ‘oil on canvas’.


The idea for this series of posts came to me in a dream last night. Well, in the dream I had already posted about them, so I have to speculate that the idea actually came from somewhere else entirely.

Hmm. That’s a bit disturbing. Anyways, because I have a history of letting my dreams dictate the course of my artistic explorations, I present for you:

7 Famous Mirrors

•1: The Evil Queen’s Magic Mirror from the Grimm Fairytale Snow White.

Betty Boop Snow White

Everyone knows the schtick – the queen enquires of her mirror every morning “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all”. The mirror obligingly tells the queen that it is she, until, one day (obviously tiring of her appalling poetry) it decides to point the finger* at Snow White, thus propelling the poor young girl into a terrifying future filled with dwarfs, coffins and tainted fruit.

In the Grimm telling of the story, the queen finally gets her come-uppance by being forced to don a pair of iron shoes that have been heated in a furnace. She is then compelled to dance in them until she dies. Modern screenwriters please take note – this is what is called an original idea.

•2: Archimedes’ Focussed Ship-Burning Mirrors.

Archimedes' Fresco

The story goes that around 200 BC during the Second Punic War, the accomplished Greek physicist and engineer Archimedes used mirrors, possibly polished bronze shields, to focus sunlight onto advancing Roman ships causing them to burst into flames. It seems this is probably a tale that grew in stature with the telling. Over the years there has been a lot of speculation about this claim, and while it is possible under exceptional conditions to focus very fine mirrors on a distant wooden object and ignite it, it is unlikely that even a huge number of highly polished bronze shields on a very sunny day could have done much more than just scorch moving, waterlogged wooden ships. The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters effectively scuttled the story in their Archimedes Death Ray episode, in which they spent quite some time getting a stationary ship to even smoke. Their conclusion was that a catapult filled with flaming pitch would have been far more effective, and a lot easier to implement.


*Figuratively speaking of course, since it has no fingers. But since mirrors don’t talk either I think the metaphor holds up.