Tele-Mirrors of the Middle Ages

Recently I was told about one interesting hypothesis that explains the origin of mirrors, or more specifically, the way how they really work. This theory can also reveal the true reasons why we, humans started to use mirrors (and why we stopped to employ them properly after a while).

Like many other novel and revelational ideas, this also looks like a complete nonsense at first. But the more I explore the evidences (very scattered, I have to admit), the more I am inclined to believe that this theory does explain many facts (and many artifacts) much more accurately that many other, more conventional approaches.

In a nutshell, this theory comes down to the following: in the ancient times people somehow managed to grasp (and subsequently to effectively use) one fundamental property of all mirrors – their connection to, and intimate relationships with each other. In other words, people at some point understood that all mirror surfaces are connected into one giant network, not unlike the Internet. This property of mirrors allows us to look at one mirror and see not only your own reflection but also the reflections that appear at this moment in any other mirror of the world – making all mirrors working like the visors, or distributed looking-glasses.

According to some researchers, people could not get this knowledge themselves (and therefore these researchers had to postulate all sorts of Aliens into their worldviews, to explain how this profound knowledge had got known to humans). However, everything can be explained without any external and/or supernatural forces as well; we, the people, are not so incompetent as it may seem and able to make some discoveries on own own.

The details of this process, i.e., exactly how this knowledge was gained, are not yet fully known, but the Big Picture is clear. Modern archaeological research (for example, the earliest mirror-making workshop recently discovered in China or the glass mirrors that we keep findings in the ancient Indian temples – although in all these cases I better say “mirrors”) show that the old masters have a good understanding of these relationships of mirrors to each other. Which completely changes the meaning and purpose of these reflective surfaces in a first place! Their main “benefit” would be, therefore, not the ability to reflect something in the proximity of a mirror, but  rather the ability to show something that is far away, something that is visible “from” some other mirror.

In essence, these ‘mirrors’ would work as a modern television, or more precisely, modern laptops connected via the Internet! The fact that you can also see yourself from time to time in the laptop’s screen is merely a by-product. In fact, it’s rather harmful by-product, because, as we all know, these reflections only hinder our interactions with the “real content” (e.g., the lines of text you are currently reading).

The point was, of course, is not only to figure our the exact alloy from which these ‘mirrors’ should be melted (or later the recipe of glass, and craft of glass-blowing) – these technology were all very important, but not sufficient. It was as important, if not more, to go through special psychological, metal training that would make eye (or rather your mind, or ‘spirit) to see through such a mirror, far beyond its surface (it would be better to call such devices ‘visors’).

For example, the mural of the Miran Stupa in Xinjiang District of China (see the picture above) shows Buddha coaching his students how to use such “visor.” Unfortunately, these frescos are in bad shape now, they are almost destroyed by the time – but even that level of preservation we have to consider a miracle, because such traces of the ancient use of visors had been meticulously destroyed later, and the knowledge of both how to craft such devices as well as how to use them became indeed “The Big Secret”.

As a result, we currently live in a cargo-cult culture with regard to mirrors – we entirely lost the knowledge about their true purpose and the skills to use the ‘visors’. Instead, we produce so-called ‘mirrors’, in which we can only recognize ourselves, not realizing that this is, perhaps, the least interesting part.

As I said, this ancient knowledge and skills had been aggressively persecuted, and all the artifacts and signs (and even hints to their existence) vigorously destroyed (I am going to write later on about this crusade against ‘scrying through mirrors’, that became  widespread in Europe in the Middle Ages).

What we have now are scattered remains, sometimes indeed just hints to this knowledge, hidden in various manuscripts and paintings. It makes it even more important to collect at least those those manifestations of this old practice that survived till today.

For example, I have recently came across an illumination that could be an example of this old forgotten practice. It is an illustration from one of the editions of the allegorical poems written by mysterious Cistercian monk who lived in France in the 13th century.

The name of the monk was Guillaume de Deguileville:

The miniature depicts Guillaume himself, laying in bed and seeing the Heavenly City of Jerusalem. Seeing it through what is clearly a huge convex mirror, which in his case operates as a medieval TV set:

We know very little about the life of Guillaume de Deguileville – he supposedly was born in the very end of the 13th century (1295?). In 1316 his traces appear in the Chaalis Abbey in the suburbs of Paris, which then belonged to the Order of Cistercians, one of the most strict and ascetic among other Christian orders, the that places a particular importance to self-denying and meditative practices. Already a brother of the Order, Guillemin wrote his first work, The journey of human life (Le Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine) around 1330.

This is a very large poem (it has more than 13,000 lines) that indeed describes a journey, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (first imaginary, and then real). Of course, in the process it provides a lot of wise advises on how to live proper and righteous life.

In a sense, this poem can be called a antithesis to the Roman de la Rose, which around that time start gaining popularity in Europe. In the the latter the emphasis was placed on this-world, and how to cease the moment here-and-now, while the former stressed the importance of the ‘other world’, more spiritual and transcendental (which we can attain by denying, rejecting the selfish needs bound to this world).

Now, all this rhetoric aside, what we see now is the signs that these ‘mirror visors’ could be still in use in Medieval Europe!

I was able to find only a few editions of the poem that would show this scene; this is another folio:

When possible, I am also providing close-ups of their ‘mirror visors’:

And one more example:

In the latter case we also see the efforts to show not only the image, the ‘vision’, but also very characteristic glow that accompanies the appearance of the vision.

In more modern depictions of such ‘visors’, and their ‘visions’ we could see a very similar glow around the edges:

Interestingly, that in this particular case it’s not only a ‘visor’, but also a ‘portal’, the technology that helps not only to see but also to visit – if not the distant City of Jerusalem, but the Silvermoon City (the device is currently operating in the Shrine of Two Moons).

The book by Digulleville was incredibly popular in 14th century. The text was adapted and translated over the years into German, Spanish, Dutch and Middle English. Charles V owned at least five copies; Jean duc de Berry three in the vernacular and one in Latin, and Philip the Bold two.

In this context it’s fascinating to revisit many of the famous ‘mirrors’ depicted in various manuscripts and question if understand their meaning correctly – like this one:

or this:


Similar motifs can be found in many other stories about various Christian visions. For example, in one of the editions of Speculum Humanae salvationis (Mirror of human salvation, a very popular simplified version of the Bible (the Bible for Dummies for the poor of the Middle Ages) I found the following illumination:

Here in we see that to have a “visor” they used … a simple window (= “TV for the poor”); which can also be used as a door, an entry.

Design of this window seems to be a bit suspicious, though. To my knowledge, medieval windows  were assembled from smaller glass discs – each of them, by the way, could be used as a ‘visor, by a trained person, that is.

(Detail of Lucca Madonna by Jan van Eyck, 1437)

In some churches their windows with stained glass do enact this motif until today – we can clearly see here a mirror/visor (or perhaps a portal):

Of course, the most experienced Seers didn’t need and ‘low-tech crutches’ and could see see far and beyond at their will, without any special ‘visors’.

Using the metaphor from the latest novel by Pratchett & Baxter, The Long Earth, an experienced traveler to the alternative worlds don’t need steppers.


This posting is only beginning of a whole new pagechapter TV program in my saga about mirrors in art:

PS: I hope that readers were able to separate the wheat and the weed in this story. The part on Guillaume de Digulleville is definitely ‘the wheat’, the part of ‘mirror visors’, well…  The very first fresco is a collage of the real fragments from the Miran Stupa and another fresco found in Hotan (or Khotan).


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