Witch mirrors

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece for the magazine Illustrati called The Two Sides of the Mirror, in which I talked about the symbology of this common object and its deep esoteric connotations.

But there is a peculiar kind of magic mirror that has a long and interesting tradition: the so-called “eye of the witch” (œil de sorcière).

It is a round, convex mirror giving a comprehensive view of the room it’s placed in: because of its curved surface, the reflection is distorted in much the same way of a wide-angle barrel distortion. Sometimes called “banker’s mirrors”, they were used since the XIV Century by money changers and goldsmiths to control their shops from a wider visual. But these mirrors found widespread diffusion two hundred years later, becoming part of bourgeois interior furniture in all Northern Europe; a luxury that was democratized in the XIX Century, when they began to be industrially produced.

Surrounded by superstition and magic beliefs, these mirrors were considered a “third eye” of sorts, capable of keeping watch over the servants whenever the master was away from home; but they were also meant as a status symbol, precious and valued objects. They were hung in a clearly visible spot, often sumptuously framed and encircled by other, smaller mirrors. To enhance the surveillance effect, perhaps, but also to give light to interiors by reflecting lamps and windows, so much so that in time they got decorated with golden wooden rays, as if they were a private sun lighting up the house. For this reason, little by little the mirrors shifted from being surveillance instruments to being considered lucky charms, benign eyes protecting the family.

The miroirs de sorcière appear in several paintings by Flemish masters, for instance in the famous Jan van Eyck‘s Arnolfini Portrait. Here the mirror is used for the first time as a device to break the “fourth wall”, showing in perspective the part of the scene that is usually invisible; van Eyck turns the mirror into a Christian symbol of purity showing the sacred bond of marriage (it reflects the wedding witnesses), but many other painters used it to include themselves in the portrait, to bring an additional light source to their painting, to symbolize pride or fleeting beauty in the vanitas depictions.

Among the artists who placed these mirrors in their paintings are Quentin Metsys, Petrus Christus, Parmigianino, Caravaggio, but the list would really be too long: for a history of the miroir de sorcière in art you can look up this article.

Today these objects, rich with history and mystery, come back to life in the Canestrelli workshop in Venice, the only studio specialized in the production of these convex mirrors, hand crafted by the owner Stefano Coluccio.

14 comments to Witch mirrors

  1. Efy says:

    scommetto che ieri sera hai visto rischiatutto con l’autoritratto del parmigianino! XD

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Scommessa persa! 😀
      Ma non sono nuovo a questo tipo di intempestive congiunzioni astrali. Anche se essere associato a Fazio sinceramente mi mancava.

      • Efy says:

        non ti voglio così male da paragonarti a Fazio!!!! il tuo blog è molto più interessante! non scherziamo!!! preferisco la teoria sulle congiunzioni astrali! fa molto “bizzarro bazar” :p

  2. gery says:

    Non ci posso credere! mentre leggevo l’articolo mi era venuto in mente il negozio di specchi a Venezia e… zac! eccolo alla fine :D! Ci passavo sempre davanti a quel negozio, per andare all’Accademia.
    Articolo sempre bello e utile spolvero! (il mio prof di storia dell’arte dedicò un’intera lezione sulla simbologia degli specchi).

  3. AC says:

    Un altro bellissimo articolo. Grazie.

  4. Tommaso says:

    A Venezia nella zona dell’Arsenale sulla riva esiste un negozio di sola produzione artigianale dove creano specchi curvi bellissimi decorati in ogni modo assieme a maschere in cuoio e moltissimi altri articoli di qualitá levata.

  5. Luisa Garbagnati says:

    Mi sono innamorata dello specchio ovale convesso con cornice dorata; mi dite dove posso trovarlo?

  6. Alice says:

    Ho sempre desiderato possedere un “occhio della strega”, e negli ultimi giorni ho individuato il posto della casa dove vorrei mettere questo tipo di specchio (siamo in questa casa da pochi mesi, è una casa antica in un centro storico): sono capitata per la prima volta in questo blog giusto ieri, non per la storia, che conosco, ma proprio per un interesse.. commerciale.
    Invece sono finita a leggere tanti articoli del blog… mi chiedo come ho fatto a non trovarlo prima!
    Ripasserò spesso, ciao!

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