Sunny Tigers in the Mirrors

I came across this illumination in one of the manuscripts while working on the posting about melusines; it so happened that these wondrous beasts had been attributed to the animal kingdom, and therefore described in the bestiaries.

In one of them – namely, the so-called Tudor Bestiary – I found this picture of a dog looking into a puddle. The bestiary is, by the way, a fairly modern (around 1520), compared to many ‘truly’ medieval volumes, and its illustrations are very stylized and quite modern. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such illustrations in any children’s book of today (or rather, you should be surprised if told that they are already five centuries old).

Then it turned out that this is not a pool, but a mirror (and also not a dog, but a tiger) – the name of the leaf in the catalog was A Tiger with a Mirror and a Ram. But then I did not have time to explore this subject deeper, and the story had been postponed until “better times.”

It’s not to say that they came, these ‘better times’, but this whole story coincidentally made a very good fit with my searchers for more ‘active mirrors’; and when I did explore it, even if shortly, turned to be a really amazing example of a very non-conventional use of mirrors in an average medieval household.

Below is my short account on all that.

This how the ‘puddle’ aka mirror looks like:

which makes clear that this is, of course, a mirror (and for the beginning of the 16th century, a very archaic one, and also depicted in a very archaic way).

But from the description of the leaf in the catalogue it wasn’t clear what this Tiger is doing with this Mirror.

The proximity of animals and mirrors (and especially the reflection of the former in the latter) is a very infrequent “guest” in the visual art of that time. If not to consider the already mentioned melusines (and also mermaids) for animals, then I remember only on case when any ‘beast’ was reflected in a mirror – in my story about a unicorn tapestries.

I decided then, without any particular hope, to search at the intersection of the words “tiger”, “mirror” and “manuscript”. O.M.G!

All of a suddenly I found millions of these tiger mirrors! And an absolutely mind-blowing story connecting them, too.

Here is one of the images that I have started to discover in multitudes:

See also a fragment with the tiger below:

As in the previous case, this is an illumination from a bestiary, this time from the famous Aberdeen Bestiary, made almost four centuries earlier (it was made in the early 12th century):

In this case this miniature had a somewhat better description, say that:

“The horseman has stolen a cub and has been pursued by the tiger. The thief can stop the tiger by a trick: he throws down a glass sphere [I guess it meant convex mirror] and the tiger, seeing its own reflection, stops to nurse the sphere like a cub. She ends by losing both her revenge and her child.”

Now we know the plot, we can better appreciate how cleverly this picture illustrates the scene – we see the moment of throwing the mirror and at the same time the one when the tiger start starring at it (here the creature better resembles like a tiger), while the horse is trying to escape the angry beast.

Such images were far from exceptional; on the contrary, I was finding them in the majority of the bestiaries; here, for example, the version of events from the no less famous Ashmole Bestiary:

In this case we also see the reflection of the animal in the mirror (although here only one mirror is depicted):

 

 

But the miniature itself is divided into two part, to emphasize the different stages of the process, and a certain pace of events. I also found a version where these two parts had been placed vertically:

Below are few more examples – at least the ones that I found in a more or less decent resolution.  On some

 

Such images were far from exceptional; on the contrary, I was finding them in the majority of the bestiaries; here, for example, the version of events from the no less famous Ashmole Bestiary:

In this case we also see the reflection of the animal in the mirror (although the depicted is only one mirror):

 

But the miniature itself is divided into two part, to emphasize the different stages of the process, and a certain pace of the events.

I also found a version where these two parts had been placed vertically:

Below are few more examples – at least the ones that I found in a more or less decent resolution.  On some of them he tigress is seemingly licking the mirror:

 

 

In others, it simply looks at it:

I could have fill this space with many more similar examples, but all of them would be just a repetition of one of the themes already displayed here; nothing new, either visually or subject-wise would be added.

Speaking about the subject, all these illuminations, however beautiful, do not reveal the meaning, the essence of the scene in any way. They all follow the same reporting guidelines (who/what/when & where/how), but make no efforts to explain the whys; what does all this circus exercises with mirrors mean?

Did they really believe in those days in Europe that the tigress are such fools? And not only that they are fools by themselves, but specifically compared to all other animals?

Would a she-bear stop if to throw a mirror at her? Would a she-wolf do? And if not, why not? What makes tigress so different from the rest?

That’s not even mentioning the fact that no tigress lived in Europe, and that legend should come from somewhere else (I didn’t find the exact source, though).

Maybe it had to do with a peculiar (striped) patterns of a tiger? May be these creatures indeed lose their mind when seeing themselves in a mirror? (by the way, most animals can’t recognize themselves in the mirrors)

***

In principle, I should have stop here. This is the story I’ve learned so far (or may be the lack of it, yet). The rest are entirely my own speculations, and you should treat them merely as a stub in my efforts to explain this medieval plot combining the tigresses and the mirrors.

As I said already, the story itself is a great case of the “active” use of mirrors, by far different from any their conventional use (although I would find difficult to classify this use as Good or Evil). However, the story does not elaborate on the reasons why tigers happened to be susceptible to the mirrors.

I think that such legend could not emerge in Europe, rather, it should have been ‘imported’, from the places where tigers would be at least more common – for example, in India.

India seems to much warmer (both literally and also semantically) with regard to this story. Even if you just look at the state symbols of this country, you can immediately see some ‘Tigers’, as well as something that looks like a mirror/solar disk:

(you can read about all this symbolism in Lion Capital of Asoka – and yes, these are of course lions, not tigers).

Things get even warmer if we move to Persia (modern Iran):

There the link between a tiger/lion and the sun (= mirror), power, all the things royal, is much more strong, almost intimate. There these things are practically inseparable – and for thousands years already:

Above is the bas-relief of the 6th century BC, on which the king Artakseroks worships the Zoroastrian goddess Anaite (Anahita), who rides on a lion and (almost) holds the sun in her hand.

On the Sassanid Empire dish/bowl below, Anahita also rides on a lion, and holds in her hands – not the sun, of course, but a ‘mirror’ or, more precisely, a shiny metal disc in the form of the sun; if found today, such disk would be blindly (sic!) considered a ‘mirror’:

Later this image of Lions of the Sun/King (=Mirrors) has become canonical and has been embodied everywhere:

The Lion often becomes Tiger, by the way:

I don’t have any proven ‘bridge’ at the moment, any sources that would link all these Persian (or Indian) images with the legend of a tiger caught by a mirror that became widespread in Medieval Europe. But if I’d have any tome and resources, I’d dig into this direction (= Iranian/Persian or Indian sources).

My idea is that this historical connection of a Lion/Tiger with the Sun may somehow explain the sensitivity of these animals to the reflecting surfaces (and I basically don’t have any other hypotheses at the moment).

I startd this posting with manuscripts, and I would make sense to finish with them too.

I found this example in the French Book of Hours of the late 15th century:

It is describes as A Lion-Riding King with a Mirror and a Scepter: The sign of Gemini)

And this is my own icon.

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