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Mirrors & Myster: Art & Ambiguity 

 Catalogue Designed & Topic Researched by Stephanie Charns  

Celtic mirrors display a variety of ornamental design.  Variations exist in these designs, yet, each composition has a similar purpose:  to play an aesthetic, non narrative role.  The actual compositions of many Celtic Mirrors contain a large amount of ambiguity further complicating the true purpose of the mirror.  Does the mirror have another function?  One other than simply providing a reflection?

Amazingly, these mirrors are insular, therefore, the decoration did not travel to the main continent.  These highly decorated mirrors arose in Britain, and for the most part, remained in Britain.  With many other art forms receiving influence from Roman art, Celtic Mirror artisans were not influenced by Roman Mirrors.  Roman mirrors contain more figural decorations rather than purely decorative designs, like Celtic Mirrors.

Mirrors, as a whole, are rather ambiguous objects.  How exactly does a mirror reflect an image?  It's magic!  Celts were not concerned with the physics behind the mirror.  They were obsessed with magic as well as personal beauty.  In a paganistic culture, such as the Celtic culture, magic plays an important role in everyday society.  Celts believed magic influenced individual decisions as well as interfere with their surroundings.  Mirrors are powerful and magical material items.  They have the power to reflect the image of a living being; however, they do not reflect images of apparitions.  Basically, an image staring back from the mirror is a doppelgänger (German for "double goer").  This image has the capability to foretell the fate of an individual.  With the celts placing extreme emphasis upon magic, the mirror holds an integral role in Celtic society.

Modern economic analysis discusses the valuable aspect of bronze goods as well as their usefulness.  Depending upon the value of the object, the supply of such an object may be altered.  In other words, the more useful the object, the higher the demand  (Bradley  101).  Unfortunately, a plethora of mirrors have not been found; thus leading some historians to believe Celtic Mirrors belonged to a wealthier class.  Luxury goods were not made available to everyone.  Having to import bronze was not an issue with the celts.  Bronze is nothing more than a metal alloy of copper and tin.  Southwest England contained many tin mines, therefore, only tin must be imported to produce these lavish mirrors. Three dozen mirrors have been found and roughly fifteen are "associated with burials in England, cremations in the Belgic areas of Hertfordshire and Essex, and inhumation elsewhere"  (Megaw 1989  210).

The Celts were extremely concerned with their physical appearance and as a result, they painted their bodies and wore elaborate jewelry.  Accordingly, mirrors provided reflections of the highly decorated person, just as they do today.  Celtic mirrors were more than a means of displaying ornamental design; they allowed a celt to attain physical beauty.  A Celtic home may lack in basic necessities; however, a mirror would be present to allow them to admire themselves  (Stead  40). For this reason, perhaps, mirrors were not merely limited to wealthy celts.  Stead believes mirrors were luxury items, thus claiming not every celt owned a mirror.  In ancient times, the magical reflection was created by using highly polished silver.  Silver mines were not as prominent in southwest England, therefore, celtic artisans imported this precious metal for the fabrication of mirrors.

Once sheet bronze is manufactured, the celts devised a few decorating techniques.  First, the bronze sheet could be placed over a hard surface already containing the master design.  Then, an imprint of the desired design is created.  Second, special tools can beat out the intended decoration.  Last, sharp tools allow the artisan to inscribe intricate designs into the object.  Some inscriptions on the mirrors were created using a compass.  Variation between compass designs and freehand designs show the varying degrees of workmanship.  Megaw defines workmanship as a "limited technical ability"  (Megaw  212).  After carefully examining both the Mayer Mirror and the Aston Mirror, one notices the Mayer Mirror displays a higher quality of craftsmanship.  Under the mirror handle, the artisan laid out guidelines in order to "execute [the intended pattern] with superbly economical skill and no errors"   (Megaw  213).  Basic ideas behind the decoration on a Celtic mirror are the joy of asymmetrical designs, allusions to a variety of naturalistic forms, and essentially creating an abstractly geometric composition.

Some mirrors, the Desborough Mirror, the Birdlip Mirror, the Aston Mirror, and the Holcombe Mirror for example, show metamorphosis, while other mirrors are purely decorative, like the Mayer Mirror.  When Celtic artisans carefully plan the location of the geometric shapes, metamorphosis can occur.  This is nothing more than the appearance of a human face.  These human faces usually appear when the mirror is hung on the wall, therefore, the mirror "watches" the individual.  Metamorphosis is both a positive quality of the Celtic Mirror and a negative quality of the Celtic Mirror.  First, a guardian "protects" the individual.  However, on the flip side, the individual is constantly being watched, and thus, may feel his or her personal space is being invaded by another being.

Tripilism is "an expression of the extreme potency of any one deity"  (Powell  124).  The idea of tripilism is, therefore, connected to the Celtic religion and mystical powers of the Celtic society.  By introducing the idea of tripilism into the decoration of the mirrors, celts can then, associate mirrors with religious and mystic powers. Numerology also played an important role in Celtic Art, therefore, ornamental artisans continue this concept in the design of mirrors.   In Celtic religion, the number three pertained to birth, death, and rebirth.  Henri Hubert claimed "the kind of decoration which the Celtic artist put on his works usually has no meaning, except in some objects used for religious purposes"  (Hubert  261).  The life cycle, birth, death, and rebirth, exists in a continuous pattern.  Celtic designs have many repetitive and continuous patterns, for instance, circles.  Circles form the basis of many designs on Celtic Mirrors.  This one simple geometric shape holds both a decorative function, one that is aesthetically pleasing, and a religious function, one that refers to the life cycle.

Animals were also heavily depicted in Celtic Art.  For example, the Aston Mirror, the Great Chesterford Mirror, and the Old Warden Mirror all display birds.  These birds are intricately incorporated into the geometric design.  Celts believed birds were closely associated to the divinity, thus connecting the concepts of numerology and tripilism to form a three-part association  (Dottin 112).

In conclusion, Celtic Mirrors, though ravishingly decorated, reveal much about the Celtic culture.  By extensively looking at the geometric shapes, one notices more than a crude culture.  The Celtic civilization was just that; civilized.  An uncivilized culture does not contain such elaborately decorated objects that contain deeply rooted concepts, such as metamorphosis, trilliums, and numerology.  These mirrors also show the vanity of a society constantly concerned with outward beautification and decoration of an individual.  Despite these sophisticated concepts, basic shapes were used to produce elaborate ornamental objects.


The Desborough Mirror
Desborough, England
1st century BCE - CE
height 35 cm
British Museum, London

This bronze mirror magnificently displays intricate Celtic designs.  Due to the Roman influence in decor shown on this mirror back, the Desborough Mirror carefully exhibits an insular style. Celtic artists adapt certain aspects of Roman decoration to fit the piece of work accordingly, therefore creating a non narrative, highly decorative design.  At first glance, the design appears symmetrical; however, on closer examination, this pattern is actually asymmetrical.  A straight line directly up the center of the design should cut the decoration half, but it does not. The design leans towards the right side of the mirror back, thus making the right side "heavier" than the left side.

Metamorphosis is shown in the mirror back of the Desborough mirror.  By looking at the mirror while holding the mirror handle, nothing more than an intricately ornate design is visible.  Yet, by flipping the mirror over, a magic trick occurs; a human face is visible.  When the mirror is turned upside down, the large round pattern in the center becomes a large bulb-like nose.  The two decorated bulbs at the top are the eyes of the person.  The Desborough Mirror does not contain just this one face, but another face appears in this rather ambiguous design.  As a result of the curving pattern, a smaller face can be found in the large bulb shape.  When hung on the wall, the handle of the mirror is obviously on top, thus the faces appear to watch the daily activities in the room!  The faces seen in this mirror are not as clear as in a mirror from the Waldalgesheim style, a style heavily influenced by the tendrils found in Greek art.  According to Dr. Jacobsthal, "Ambivalence of positive and negative a feature of Celtic art"  (Fox  84).

Following the swirling movement on the back of the Desborough Mirror, certain aspects of the design appear to jump forward.  This movement, resulting in a high rhythmic feeling,  shows a "recovery of the Celtic Spirit"
(Fox 88).  A more finely tuned etching of the lyre-palmette pattern is shown on the back of this mirror.  The pattern on the mirror back resembles lace in that the design is very delicate in form.  "S" scrolls, triskeles, and other geometric designs become more visible due to the basketry style hatching.  This style of shading has a tendency to fall towards the background allowing geometric forms to be pushed into the foreground.  Sir Cyril Fox describes this decoration as rather flamboyant, almost rococo in nature.


(detail of Desborough Mirror)
Unfortunately, time has taken away any shiny aspect of the Desborough Mirror.  Nevertheless, due to the shimmering nature of bronze, this mirror would have splendidly added glitter to any wall.  Even though the mirror is only 35 cm in size, the magnitude of shine produced outweighed the small physical size.

Mirror handles play an important role in the decor of a mirror as well.  The Desborough Mirror handle shows a shift in design; handles on earlier mirrors were made to support circular shaped mirrors, but at the onset of 1 BCE, the handle was modified.  This new modification supported a kidney shaped mirror.  A goal for a bronze smith was to hide the riveted joints, therefore

creating another illusion on the mirror.  Those who made the Desborough carefully and completely hid the joints.

Works Cited:

The Mayer Mirror    
Also called the Engraved Mirror
Southeast England (?)
late 1st century BCE
height 22.5 cm
City Museum, Liverpool

This flat bronze mirror displays a variety of sub-triangular and curvilinear forms with lobe patterns accenting the design.  For the most part, the decoration consists of three circles, or roundels,  in which three-sided voids are carefully situated.  With the placement of the three roundels, a fused design is formed.  This well planned placement of voids creates a triskele-like form in the circle on the lower right corner of the mirror.  In the lower left circle, it appears as if part of a triskele is cut in half.  Also, a roundel is visible at the tip of an appendage of this partial triskele.  Just like the Desborough Mirror, the designs on the Mayer Mirror are asymmetrical.  "The unprovenanced Mayer mirror, possibly one of the earliest, shows a simpler version of the lyre, a design executed with consummately economical craftsmanship" (Megaw  30).  The Desborough mirror displays a more elaborate rendering of this lyre style.  Because the Mayer mirror displays a more simple decoration, one may question whether or not this mirror was the precursor to later decoration styles on mirrors.

Even though some damage has affected this mirror, the majority of the mirror has been well preserved, especially considering the age of such an object.  Unfortunately, the information provided does not include a clear, colorful photo to determine the intensity of the shine.  However, one must consider the large amount of time that has passed since the creation of this mirror.

Unlike the Desborough Mirror, the Mayer Mirror does not contain any elements in the design to create the illusion of human faces.  The design is nothing more than a basic pattern flowing across the back of a mirror.  With later mirrors, more movement is visible in the artistry, such as the Desborough Mirror and the Birdlip Mirror.  Much of this design appears to do nothing more than please the viewer with simple geometry rather than introduce the idea of illusion.

Not only is the decoration simple in nature, but the handle is also simple.  The Mayer Mirror has a basic loop handle.  The left end of the handle attaches to the base of the mirror and forms a loop before the right end reconnects.  A small iron loop is "tied" around the middle of the loop creating a teardrop shape, a shape in which one could easily hang the mirror on the wall.

Works Cited:

  The Aston Mirror
Aston, Herfordshire, England

1st century BCE
height 19.4 cm
British Museum, London

The Aston Mirror displays elements of shape-shifting and trilliums as well as metamorphosis. It is based on the circles, three smaller circles suspended inside three larger circles.  Many Celtic mirror designs display highly elaborate decoration; however, the Aston Mirror is rather simple in decor.  This simplicity does not eliminate an important Celtic feature, one of asymmetry. The circle furthest from the handle is slightly off center.

According to Ruth and Vincent Megaw, the negative space in the design is just as important as the "changing interplay — the light and shade of smooth and matted areas"  (Megaw  210-211).  In other words, the Celts may not have thought the Aston Mirror was simple in its decoration.  This simplicity allows the viewer to focus upon the metamorphosis of a human face and a bird and the concept of trilliums.  By showing these abstract ideas, the Aston Mirror is "elaborately" decorated in its own way.

Just like the Desborough Mirror, the Aston Mirror distinctly displays metamorphosis.  When held upside down, with the handle above the mirror, the two elliptical shapes close to each other become the eyes of the face.  This mirror may, at first appear basic, yet at another glance, notice the pupils of the eyes.  This small detail helps to create a metamorphosis, thus allowing the "mirror" to watch every action in the room.  A human face is not the only thing "seen" in this mirror.  A bird, whose head is the
right ellipse and body is the large bulbous circle at the bottom, is also visible.  As a result of this ambiguity, one may question whether or not a face or a bird was spotted in such a simply decorated mirror.  This, according to Dr. Jacobsthal, is a special Celtic trademark  (Fox  84).

Basketry hatching, a popular Celtic technique, was used to create this simple pattern.  Outlining the decoration on the mirror is series of hatch marks creating a braided effect.  Professionals claim the design was created by a craftsman with "limited technical ability"  (Megaw  212).  This, combined with less than perfect tools, created an extraordinary mirror.  When compared with the Mayer Mirror, the Aston Mirror does show lower craftsmanship.   The artisan delicately engraved the bronze using a tool with a straight edge, and subsequently, created "irregular oblong basketry"  (Megaw  212).

Works Cited:

The Birdlip Mirror     
Female Burial, Birdlip,
Gloucestershire, England
1st century BCE
height 28.7 cm
City Museum, Gloucester

Each Celtic mirror displays different levels of Celtic craftsmanship, however, whether the decoration is simple or complex is not important.  The important part is the introduction of Celtic features into the design.  The pattern engraved on the Birdlip Mirror, an Insular La Tene mirror, closely reflects the design on the Desborough Mirror; however, the Birdlip Mirror displays qualities of trilliums while using circles.  The engraving on this mirror is, much like the other Celtic mirrors, asymmetrical.  Metamorphosis is also apparent when the Birdlip mirror is hung from a wall.  Two beady eyes emerge from the elaborate engraving.  The shape of the eyes create a stern face, thus producing an eerie feeling, as if someone is not only watching you, but that this person is angry.

The actual shapes in the mirror are soft in nature.  Nothing seems to end in a sharp, abrupt point, but rather, in a soft, rounded edge.  The curving nature of the shapes allow the viewers eyes to smoothly flow around the design.

(another view of the Birdlip Mirror)

The design on the Birdlip Mirror "has a generic resemblance to the Colchester" mirror  (Fox  88).  A definite feeling of Celtic Spirit is visible in the engravings on the Birdlip Mirror.  The negative space in this design is intricately incorporated with the roundels and the coils, therefore, creating a more complex design than the Desborough Mirror.

Works Cited:


The Great Chesterford Mirror
Essex, England

1st century BCE
height 23.5 cm

British Museum, London

The Great Chesterford Mirror, though only twenty three and one half centimeters, displays a magnificent design.  This Celtic bronze mirror, much like the Old Warden Mirror from Bedfordshire, contains a design based on three-sided voids, rather than lobe patterns.  Six matted shapes are located around the perimeter of the mirror.  These shapes appear in different form, yet all are connected by the interwoven basket-hatching.

(detail of Great Chesterford Mirror) 
The artist who created this mirror included a Celtic trademark found in many other mirrors, metamorphosis.  First, one bird-like image and one human image appear in the design.  When holding the mirror in hand, a human face emerges near the top of the mirror.  Two closed roundels form the eyes, while the nose is formed by a three-sided void.  After hanging the mirror from the wall, the bird-like image pops out causing the human face to disappear.  Again, a closed roundel forms the eye, while the nose is created with an elongated three-sided void.

Another Celtic trademark included in this design is tripilism.  As mentioned earlier, three-sided voids dominate the mirror back.  Two tiny triskeles are present, one located to the far left of the design and the other located to the far right of the mirror.  These triskeles consist of three appendages.  Four rosettes are present, three of these rosettes have closed roundels while one rosette is open.  Tripilism is also seen in the mirror handle.  Three circle-in-circle figures attach the handle to the mirror.

Nothing about his design is symmetrical, thus making it extremely unique.  At first glance, many other Celtic Mirrors appear symmetrical, however, upon closer examination, the viewer notices slight asymmetry.  The design on the Great Chesterford Mirror does not at all appear to have symmetry.  The mirror handle, on the other hand, does have symmetry; much like handles on Celtic Mirrors.
Works Cited:


The Holcombe Mirror
(sketch of mirror)
Devon, England

1st century BCE


British Museum, London

This insular mirror from Devon combines features from the Desborough Mirror.  Looking at these three mirrors, side by side, one may speculate the order in which they were created.  The Desborough Mirror appears to have been the original mirror because the Holcombe Mirror has a more advanced pattern.  The Holcombe Mirror has signs of heavy compass scratching (Stead  9).

According to Philip Lowery, the designs on this mirror were made using a compass rather than hand held tools  (Duval  220).  Since this design was created with a compass, the design itself is symmetrical. Due to the placement of the design on the mirror back, one cannot equally divide the image.  In other words, placing a line directly down the center of the mirror may divide the mirror in half, however, the design will not be equally divided.  As a result, the Celtic tradition of asymmetry is still present in
the Holcombe Mirror.

The Holcombe Mirror displays many domed trumpets with open roundels, triskeles, a variety of sub-triangular and curvilinear forms, and many three-sided voids  (Fox  147-148).  Because of the careful placement of these designs, metamorphosis occurs when the mirror is hung from the wall.

A Cheshire cat image is used to attach the handle to the mirror and is an example of the Plastic, or "Disney" style.  This style carefully uses the head of a bird as the main focus.  Therefore, something is constantly watching the outside world. Due to the ambiguous nature of Celtic Mirrors, elusive images are shown.

Works Cited:

The Trelan Bahow Mirror     
also known as the St. Keverne Mirror
Cornwall, England
1st century BCE
British Museum, London

This mirror carefully displays a side by side design of free circles.  Due to the incision of the free circles on the left side of the mirror, one may speculate the Trelan Bahow Mirror was made after the Mayer Mirror  (Fox, 98).

Similar to other Celtic Bronze Mirrors, this mirror shows basketry hatching as the basis of all design.  An outline separates the outside world from the decoration on the mirror back.  This outline is nothing more than a pointed scalloped edge.  Basketry hatching fills the triangles which point away from the center of the mirror, therefore, every other triangle is open.  The main part of the mirror consists of two elaborate, yet different, circles.  In each circle, the artisan carefully included a variety of Celtic ornamentation.  Three sided voids and matted shapes are common throughout these two circles.  Matted shapes are merely shapes filled in with basketry hatching.  All roundels in the Trelan Bahow Mirror are open roundels.  Lobes, as well as trumpet shapes, are intertwined with the three sided voids and other matted shapes to create harmony within each circle.

For the most part, however, the Trelan Bahow Mirror is formed on the basis of the circle.  In other words, the circle, in one way or another, incorporated itself into almost every shape.

The handle on this mirror is a basis loop handle, exactly like the handle on the Mayer Mirror.  A teardrop is formed at the top of the handle, thus allowing the mirror to hang easily on the wall.  Due to the nature of the design, this mirror does not display metamorphosis nor trilliums.  As a result, no human face "magically" appears once the mirror is hung upon a wall.


Works Cited:


The Old Warden Mirror
Bedfordshire, England
1st century BCE

Neither metamorphosis nor ambiguity have important roles in the design on this mirror.  For the most part, the design is a straight forward geometric collage.  Three-sided voids primarily dominate the Old Warden Mirror, much like the Great Chesterford Mirror.  Four open roundels are asymmetrically situated throughout the design.  The composition, as a whole, may not be symmetrical, however, the artisan who created this mirror created a balance between the positive space and the negative space.  The negative space, or the background, is not composed of basketry hatching, but rather it is composed of a pattern that resembles the palm of a fern.  In other words, many tiny lines branch off a large, artery like line.  These "palms" are carefully situated, thus forming a zig-zag pattern.  "The dark ribbons of hatched work, produced by 'rocking' the chasing tool, enclose shapes mostly bounded by the familiar two-simple-and-one-compound curves...familiar in [the Mayer Mirror]"  (Fox  94).  Historians have suggested the purpose for such a geometrically oriented design is to merely "please the eye;" however, were other Celtic mirrors, such as the Desborough Mirror, the Aston Mirror, the Birdlip Mirror, etc., not created to "please the eye?"  (Fox  95).  Due to the nature of the design on Celtic Mirrors, a non narrative design, artisans hoped to attract the attention of other celts.  Much of Celtic Art is ornamental, thus, it does nothing more than serve an aesthetic purpose.  For this reason, Celtic Mirrors have one important function:  to provide a reflection of the owner.  The decoration on the mirrors is simply nonfunctional.

(detail of Old Warden Mirror)  

Just as in the Great Chesterford Mirror, animal forms can be seen in the Old Warden Mirror.  When holding the mirror handle, one may locate a bird to the far right of the mirror.  Both the body and the beak are made from large three-sided voids, while the eye is an open roundel.  Two other possible birds can be spotted.  Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, these two birds do not exist.  The geometric nature of the design caused one to see these two birds.

The ornamental design is not the only place birds appear on this mirror.  The point at which the handle attaches to the mirror also displays bird heads.  These heads are situated back to back, therefore their beaks face away from the center.  When hanging upon a wall, the birds on the Old Warden Mirror still have the capability of watching the owner.

In comparison to other mirror handles, the handle on the Old Warden Mirror closely resembles the handles on the Great Chesterford Mirror and the Aston Mirror.  Two teardrop shapes joined at the rounded end and separated by a flat disk form the middle portion of the handle.  A large open circle allows the owner of the mirror to easily hang the mirror.

Works Cited: