March 29, 2023

A few weeks ago, Stefan and I started a new and exciting tradition. On Sundays, as we sit comfortably at the breakfast table, we grab an art book and choose a painting together. We look at it closely and are inspired by its beauty and history. Throughout the week, we deepen our knowledge of the period, art style, and background of the painting.

It piques our curiosity and makes us want more. Although in different ways and on different subjects, it has inspired us both. For me, it is the symbolic language of the paintings that inspires me.

So I've decided to start my own little tradition. From time to time, I'll explore different symbols and share my findings with you in a blog post. Today I'll start with the mirror, a decidedly ambiguous symbol. I'm looking forward to it. Are you?

Creativity Meets Meaning: How Symbols Enrich Art

Why do we use symbols in art at all? It has a long and important history going back to antiquity. One of the reasons was that many people in the past couldn't read. Symbols provided an easy way to communicate stories to the viewer. They were used in mythological tales and religious depictions to identify deities by their attributes or to visualize abstract concepts and character traits. Symbols were also used during the Renaissance. There, they were often used to indicate the social status of the subject.

The Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch often hid symbols in his surrealist paintings to express his views on human nature, religion, and society. Da Vinci is said to have included several symbols in his "Last Supper" that contained a hidden message about the faith and power relations of the time. For example, one interpretation sees the open windows in the background as a symbol of the possibility of human perception.

Symbols can be a universal language, understood across language barriers and historical contexts. They allow artists to incorporate meanings and messages into their artwork and open up a deeper level of interpretation for viewers. Nevertheless, they sometimes require some interpretation.

Behind encoded images: symbolism as a form of political protest

There have been times when artists have used symbols as a kind of secret language to hide messages or critical ideas in their artwork. Especially in politically turbulent times or in authoritarian regimes where freedom of expression has been or is being restricted, artists encode subversive or dangerous messages to avoid repression or censorship. The use of symbols makes their message less obvious - but also less dangerous for them.

From Narcissus to Today: The Mirror as a Symbol in Art

In art, the mirror is an object of great symbolic power. Its use dates back to Greek mythology. The vain Narcissus is not ready to love and is cursed to fall in love with his own reflection, which he sees in a spring. His object of love remains out of his reach as the water ripples, and his reflection disappears as soon as he approaches it. Eventually, Narcissus dies of unrequited love.

As in the story of Narcissus and his reflection, the mirror in art often represents vanity, self-love, and superficiality. It is reduced to appearances. In earlier works of art, the mirror was often depicted as a luxurious object reserved for the rich and powerful. Even in modern art, the mirror occasionally serves as a symbol of self-centeredness.

It is often incorporated into sculptures and installations. Artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama have used mirrors to create immersive experiences that challenge the viewer's perception of self and reality. These artists play with the allure of seeing and being seen. The viewer becomes a voyeur.

At the same time, the meaning of the mirror in art is not always negative; its symbolic power is ambivalent and multifaceted.


When we look in the mirror, we recognize ourselves and perceive who we are and how we feel. It can show us the truth about ourselves that we did not know before. Whether in art, mythology, literature, or philosophy, the mirror is also a symbol of self-knowledge, the search for truth, and self-reflection. It helps us understand ourselves better. It shows us how we are seen by others. The mirror serves as a means of self-assurance and identity.

It also represents a change of perspective. The mirror gives us the opportunity to look at people, things or situations from a different perspective and thus penetrate deeper into their nature. With the help of a mirror, one can look into angles that would otherwise remain hidden to the eye.


The penitent Magdalene

The calm, meditative mood combined with the vanitas symbols of skull and candle suggest spiritual enlightenment in this painting. The mirror is a symbol of inner reflection and the search for meaning.


But the mirror can also mean the exact opposite. Instead of finding the truth, it stands for illusion and deception. A mirror image can be distorted or tainted. But even if the mirror is flat and perfect, it can only reflect the surface. Deeper it does not see.

The mirror is the master of illusion. It can manipulate our perception of reality through complex optical illusions. When viewed through a mirror, the dimensions of a room can change. It always shows us only a part of reality, depending on the angle from which we look into it. It shows us only a reflected reality, which is not necessarily the truth. The image loses its credibility in the mirror.

The mirror is a toy of light, a tool of perception and a symbol of deception and illusion.


Reflection in the mirror

Not to Be Reproduced

René Magritte's painting makes it clear that a mirror can only be a reflection of the truth. It shows it slightly altered. The mirror does not exchange right and left, but front and back. Only one side is visible to us, the rest remains hidden.

René Magritte | 1937
Collection Edward James,
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


From ancient times to the present, artists have used the mirror as an iconic symbol of femininity and beauty. The Roman goddess Venus is often depicted with a mirror as a sign of her beauty and self-confidence. In portraiture, the mirror is often used as a prop to enhance the beauty and character of the subject.

It also represents purity or divinity itself. In many cultures and religions, the mirror is considered a sacred object that reflects the soul and symbolizes a connection to the divine. In Chinese art, for example, the mirror was considered a symbol of the Eye of Heaven and was revered as a sacred object. In Christian art, the mirror symbolizes the purity of the Virgin Mary.


Venus at her Mirror

In this painting by the Spanish painter, we can only see the goddess Venus from behind. Her face is only visible in the mirror. This symbolizes the divinity that mortals are forbidden to see directly at death.

Diego Velázquez | 1647–1651
National Gallery, London


The mirror is often used as a metaphor for human life. It asks the viewer to reflect on his or her life. The mirror reflects the transient, making it clear that beauty and youthfulness are not permanent.

The mirror is often used in vanitas paintings. These are still lifes that show various objects such as a skull, a clock, a burning or extinguished candle, and a mirror to emphasize the transience of life, the illusion of beauty and youth, and the mortality of man. The term "vanitas" comes from Latin and means "vanity" - and carries secondary meanings of "transience" or "nothingness".

The vanitas motif is meant to remind the viewer that all earthly things are transitory and that death is inevitable. Other typical elements found in vanitas depictions include wilted flowers and pest infestations on food.



The three ages and death

The girl is admiring her youth and beauty in the mirror. But when we look closely, we see that it is not she who is reflected, but death.

Hans Baldung Grien | 1509/1510
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Many Faces of the Mirror: Interpretations and Meanings in Art

Besides vanity, knowledge, illusion, beauty and transience, the mirror can represent many other aspects.

Duality: Mirroring creates a kind of twin image, very similar to the original and yet different. Duality and opposites are a typical orientation pattern in art and the history of philosophy - such as male and female, life and death, or good and evil.

Mysticism and magic: The belief that the mirror can open access to another world or dimension is common in many cultures. In literature, the mirror is often used as a gateway to other worlds or dimensions where spirits, demons, or other supernatural beings may reside. One of the most famous examples is Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

Distance: The mirror shows not only a reflection, but also a spatial separation between the viewer and the reflection. This may allude to the concept of alienation and isolation. In Japanese theater, the mirror serves as a symbol of the distance between the representation on stage and reality. The mirror creates the illusion of "another world" on stage, separate from the real world. Through the mirror, the audience is subtly reminded that what is happening on stage is not reality, but a kind of dream world created by the performers.

Mirror, mirror on the wall - what does it mean?

Among all the meanings, which one is the right one? How to read the mirror in a picture correctly and recognize its specific meaning?

To correctly read the meaning of the mirror in a painting, it is important to consider the surrounding, often supporting factors. How is the mirror depicted, is it in the foreground or in the background? Is it the main subject or an accessory? What other objects have been depicted? The historical and cultural context of the image's creation is also crucial. A first step in understanding the mirror in a work of art is to decipher the context.


The Arnolfini Portrait

In van Eyck's painting, the mirror serves several functions. On the one hand, it shows the wealth of the bridegroom, which can also be seen in the luxurious furnishings, such as the fur trim on the cloak. The frame suggests a religious meaning, as it is carved with scenes from the Passion of Christ. The clarity of the glass symbolizes the purity of the Virgin Mary, and thus the virtue of the bride.

Finally, in addition to the couple, the painter himself can be seen in the mirror. He is a witness to the marriage (this is also indicated by the inscription above the mirror: "Jan van Eyck was here").
It is not entirely clear who is depicted in the painting. For a long time it was thought that it was Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride Giovanna Cenami. However, it could also be his younger brother Michele Arnolfini and his wife Elisabeth.
In this case, van Eyck's testimony in the painting commissioned by the bridegroom would be of some importance, as the two had a morganatic marriage, since Elisabeth was of lower class.
In a morganatic marriage, the lower-class partner had no claims, she was not included in the family, and neither she nor her descendants had any right to inherit - which is why no witnesses were needed for the marriage.

The bulging belly does not indicate pregnancy, but fertility; the clogs stand for domesticity; the dog represents fidelity; and the man's gesture is a blessing. All in all, we can probably say that the painting represents a successful marriage in the sense of the time.

Jan van Eyck | 1434 - National Gallery, London

Let's explore the world of art symbols further!

How did you like this little glimpse into the world of art symbols? I'm definitely hooked. Surely I will explore this topic further. What do you think?
Do you have any experience in interpreting art symbols? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Feel free to leave a comment!

Interested in this topic? Then don't miss my upcoming blog posts. An article about which symbol would interest you the most?
Until then, have fun discovering and understanding the fascinating world of art!

Yours, Lea

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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