Alice in Wonderland crawls through a looking glass. In A Picture of Dorian Gray Dorian’s portrait acts “like the most magical of mirrors” to show him his damaged, hideous soul even though all real mirrors depict him as unblemished. “You are made to be good-you look so good,” one character remarks to him ironically. The child Jane Eyre, locked in a supposedly haunted room, looks in a mirror and sees herself as a “strange little figure…with a white face and arms specking the gloom.” Later, as a bride, she describes her own reflection “as a robed and veiled figure…so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.” After being seduced by the aristocratic Rudolphe, Emma stands in front of a mirror, enraptured by her own corruption, and whispers, “I have a lover, I have a lover.”
One of the most famous reflections in the world is that of Narcissus, a handsome young man who, after glimpsing himself in a lake, desires his own image so fervently that he dies from longing. And so vanity is linked to the unattainable, to fantasy and pining. But that never stopped anyone from looking–because mirrors are also symbols of perfection and the allure of beauty. The earliest known mirrors date from around 6000 BC, and were made from polished volcanic glass. In 500 AD clearer, reflective glass mirrors began to appear, using amalgams of silver-mercury. Venetian craftsmen refined the art of making mirrors by figuring out how to fuse glass, mercury and tin; they then framed their creations with gilt and beveled edges. In 1665 Louis XIV imported twenty Venetian glass workers into his own court and–viola!–the Hall of Mirrors was conceived. Seventeen mirror-clad arches facing seventeen arcade windows still glitter today at Versailles. Mirrors greatly helped artists from the Renaissance onward in depicting “linear perspective”, the technique which takes what is flat and makes it appear in relief i.e. real.
Inside the looking glass: whether like Alice we are searching for a new world, or just taking a selfie, the search to verify ourselves and our surroundings remains essential. What do you see when you look in the mirror?