I came across this illumination in one of the manuscripts, while working on the posting about melusines; these wondrous creatures had been attributed to the kingdom of animals and therefore described in the bestiaries. In one of these bestiaries – the so-called Tudor Bestiary – I found a picture of what looked like a dog looking into a small puddle of some sort.
This particular bestiary is a fairly modern one (made around 1520s), compared to many ‘truly’ medieval volumes, that often dates back to 14th, or even 13th centuries. The illustrations are very stylized and quite modern, too. We wouldn’t be surprised to see such illustrations in a children’s book of today (or rather, you could be surprised when learning that they are already five centuries old).
It turned out that this is not a puddle, but a mirror (and the creature is not a dog, but a tiger.) The title of this leaf in a catalog is A Tiger with a Mirror and a Ram. Back 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 the story about the tigers and the mirrors coincidentally made a very good fit with my current searches for more ‘active mirrors’, the ones that not only reflect but ‘do’ something.
So when I did manage to explore this story better, it turned to be a really amazing example of a very non-conventional application of mirrors in the medieval times.
Below is a short account of what I found so far.
This is how the ‘puddle’ / mirror looks in a close-up:
The close-up makes clear that this is, of course, a mirror, though a fairly archaic one for the beginning of the 16th century. It is also depicted in a very archaic, simplistic manner.
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) poses a very infrequent question for researchers of visual art of that time – and also shapes a “guest”, to figure out what they are doing together.
If we won’t be considering the already mentioned melusines and mermaids as ‘animals’, then I remember only one case when any ‘beast’ would be reflected in a mirror, a unicorn (see the story about a unicorn tapestries.)
I decided then, without any particular hope, to search anything interesting at the intersection of the words “tiger”, “mirror” and “manuscript”.
All of a suddenly I found these ‘tiger mirrors’ galore! 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 (the volume was written in the early 12th century!):
In this case the miniature is supplied with a somewhat better description, saying 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 they meant a 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, when 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 moment when the tigeress start starring at it (here the creature better resembles a tiger), while the knight on horse is trying to escape the angry beast.
The illuminations like this one were far from exceptional. On the contrary, I kept finding them in the majority of the bestiaries I looked at. Here, for example, the version of events from the no less famous Ashmole Bestiary:
And in another version we also see the reflection of the animal in the mirror (although here only one mirror is depicted).
This bestiary is attributed to Giraldus Cambrensis (or Gerald of Wales), and was created in the second half of 13th century. But in this case the miniature itself is clearly divided into two parts, to depict the different stages of the process and provide a certain pace of events.
I also found a version where these two parts had been placed vertically:
This is the leaf from the so called Northumberland Bestiary, made in the middle of 13th century:
The tigress here not only looking at a mirror, but almost licking it:
Below are a couple of other examples with this mirror-licking motif – at least the ones that I found in a more or less decent resolution.
In others, she simply looks at the mirror:
I could fill this post with many more similar examples, but all of them would be just a repetition of one of the themes already displayed here. No much 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 do all this circus exercises with the mirrors mean?
Did they really believe in those days in Europe that the tigresses are so stupid to stop by a mirror? 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 the 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 they believed that these creatures can indeed lose their mind when seeing themselves in a mirror? (by the way, most animals can’t recognize themselves in a mirrors, as it is proved by the latest studies.)
In principle, I could as well stop here. This is the story I’ve learned so far (or may be the lack of the story, yet, as I only collected various examples of this scene depicted in different manuscripts over time).
The rest is entirely my own speculations, and you should treat them merely as a stub, the very first hypothesis to explain this medieval plot that combined 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 Usage). However, as I said, the story does not elaborate on the reasons why tigers happened to be susceptible to the mirrors (at least I never found any clear explanations).
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 a much ‘warmer’ place (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 these symbolisms 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):
In Persia 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:
On the Sassanid Empire dish/bowl below, the same 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 to be 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 the Medieval Europe. If I’d have a bit more time, 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 beliefs about a sensitivity of these animals to the reflecting surfaces (and I basically don’t have any other hypotheses at the moment).
PS: I started this posting with manuscripts, and I would make sense to finish with them too. I’ve recently found this interesting 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 Sceptre: The sign of Gemini:
And this is my own icon to sum up the story: