Mirrors found in Zaragoza

A while ago, i-shmael, an old fun of this project, sent me an interesting mirror/shield from Spain – it’s on the right side of the above picture. (I later wrote a small posting about these objects, you can see it here – Of the Shields, and the Dragons & Demons). Much later a new fun of this blog, assucareira, has shown another very interesting mirror/shield, this time from Portugal (you may see it on the left encirclement).

As a result of these, but also many others “influences”, I came to the conclusion that the Iberian Peninsula is totally stuffed with mirrors, and I would come there the very terrain will feed me with many new ‘mirror stories’ (and of course also shed light on many old stories, that would give birth to the new ones, similar to the forking plot of the Manuscript Found in Saragossa).

It just happened that we have been to this very peninsula lately, even twice. However, I had a strange feeling of a mirror shortage of a sort. I did find many mirrors there, both new and old – I even managed to write about some of these encounters – New meetings with the old mirrors, the More mirror reunions, and then even more ‘meetings’ (The waves of my (mirror) memory).

And yet I had a feeling of ‘mirror deprivation’. Perhaps, it was because I expected to find not only “museum mirrors” (such as the ‘royal mirrors’ by Juan Carreno de Miranda in Prado), but also more authentic mirrors. For example, mirrors in the paintings or frescos that would be still in the churches or palaces (and ideally the one that nobody recognised yet as such, so I can pretend to be a ‘discoverer’). The Iberian Peninsula seems to bring forth very strange fantasies.


Funnily enough, but I did find these mirrors, too! So my feeling should be called totally irrational (but the feelings always are). I did meet many really interesting mirrors, both in Spain and later in Portugal, but simply didn’t have time yet to write about them. The ‘didn’t write’ status somehow transformed into ‘didn’t meet’ one. It’s time to change this glitch.

The story below is about our trip to Zaragoza; it seems that there will be two or three stories in total, so this is only the first part. As often happen with these ‘travel reports’ of mine, most of the stuff has nothing to do with mirrors per se. Yet it does provide a wider context to what I discover, or so I think.

The picture above is not mine. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to climb any of the roofs to see the view from above, so I have to use someone’s else work. As you can seem, Zaragoza is nice and pretty town, fairly compact and fairly cozy (as far as can be cozy any town located in the Spanish province of Aragon, otherwise pretty dry and deserted.)

We lived in a hotel on the edge of the city, and this was the view from our window:

Once again – in spite of the marvellously beautiful skies, the earth there looks like this:

(the picture is clickable, if you want to see the details.)

Nevertheless, the town was founded, and quite long ago. It has quite a strategic location on the river Ebro, that allowed the dwellers to control of the crossings trade and/or military routs.

The picture above (again not mine) shows both the river Ebro and the main attractor of the town, so called Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (or Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Spanish.)

Of course, some local tribes lived in this places since ancient times, but the town gained its status and role (and also current name) only in the time of Roman Empire. It was then called Caesaraugusta – after the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus whose armies came to the north of current Spain. The locals eventually transformed the name into current Zaragoza.

The statue of the namesake Emperor is still appropriately there, together with corresponding ruins of the Roman fortress and an amphitheater.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the city was captures by the Goths and later, around the 7th century went, like most of Spain, under the Muslim rule (in form of the Emirate of Cordoba). Muslim influence can be still seen almost everywhere in the city, at least in its architecture. In fact, the above Basilica was built on the place of the main mosque of the city, and another cathedral, so-called La Seo, basically took the building of another mosque. Its walls are still completely covered with the Muslim decorative elements and symbols – now, almost a thousand year after the fall of the last taifa.

As I said, it has nothing to do with my mirror stories (although at some point it would be interesting to delve into the traces of Roman glass, and their possible impact on the local culture; the role of glass (and mirrors) in Islam is even more interesting, but that would require a very substantial research, since now I know next to nothing on the subject).

Speaking about  Our Lady and the pillars. It is widely believed in Christianity that Zaragoza was the place where the place where St. James, one of the twelve apostles of Christ, went with his evangelic mission (on the way he also became Saint Iago, or Yago, so the popularity of ‘Santiagos’ of all sort in Spanish toponymy (or broader, in onomastics.)

Here, on the banks of the Ebro, he happened to have the vision of St. Mary who allegedly gave him a small statuette, together with a certain column, made of jasper(?) On that occasion the very first chapel in honor of St. Mary was built at that place.

Later the chapel has been destroyed, but the statuette and the column survived. They had been consequently reinstalled in numerous churches built at the place where the vision of St.James took place, and then finally had been placed in the new cathedral. The construction started in the late 17th century, and around 1725 the building  more or less modern has got its modern form, although construction continued till the end of 19th century.

It’s really a huge building, 130 m long and almost 70 wide, with four towers on the corners, and ten  individual chapels (each with its own turret), overarched by a colossal dome. Here is the view from the nearby bridge.

Below are a few pictures with various architectural elements that I took when we strolled around this giant building.  One has to compile the total image of the basilica in a way similar to compiling the puzzle, from small different pieces.

Here is also the view in the night:

The capricious cocktail of architectural styles resembles the one of St.Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. At some point the development of architectural plan was guided by Francisco Goya, who also painted a few ceiling frescoes.)

The entrance is via the giant gates:

It’s actually not that easy to come in, as you have to elbow your way through a crowd of people. We came to the town during the Christmas holidays, so all religious places were full of pilgrims, families with kids, and of course tourists too, together creating an exemplary mess.

The Eastern gate (above) is particularly challenging because it is located closer the so the called Holy Chapel (or the Chapel of Ventura Rodriguez, after the architect who made its design), where the very Pillar and the very Mary on this pillar are located.


Needless to say that it is an insanely revered place in Christianity, resulting in the huge crowds of people coming here to venerate, basically, everything around. It is now allowed to take picture in the cathedral, by the way, as these people (and the guards) take everything Very Seriously (so all the pictures below are pure bootlegs.)

A zoom-in view of the statuette (though you still won’t see much, really):

In general, the Madonna on the Pillar looks like that (this is the photo the Cathedral’s official website):













But her more common appearance is created by a special cape, a half-dress, half-cloak, which is officially called the mantle. The fact that one would’t be able to see much in the cathedral itself is not a big issue – everything, and even more, can be seen in the countless versions, in all possible designs sold all over the city.

Multiple strategies of beautification are at work to make the statue even more sparkling and radiant than it actually is.

Actually, this “sparkling and shining” makes this artifact very interesting in the context of this blog.Perhaps, not even the very Pillar and its Madonna, but all these countless models and remakes that have been produced during many centuries. It would be really interesting to see how technology of mirror-making impacted the creation of these remakes,  and then in turn their depiction in art. We have actually seen some examples of both developments during our short stay in Zaragoza.

Speaking about the pillar itself, I’ve actually spotted something looking like a mirror, or at least a reflecting gem embedded in it (on this picture it’s near the bottom):

The image of the Virgin on a Pillar got into all conceivable incarnation; including, for example, into chocolate.

I thought it would border with blasphemy, but no it’s apparently very fine with everyone around. We even bought a sample, mostly to have a visual artifact (the chocolate itself was so-so, by the way):



But let’s return to the real mirrors, or at least to something that resembles them.

We found one interesting chapel in the center of cathedral – although the word ‘chapel’ may be a bit misleading in this case, because by its size this construction exceeds many full-scale churches.

This is the Chapel of St. Anna, and its entire altarpiece is dedicated to the life and salutary activities of the Christ’ grandmother. There is a very interesting construction above the head of the Saint Anna, right in the middle of the retablo.

It looks like one large mirror, although a close-up shows that’s likely a glass, covering complex light installation:

As I understand, there are candles behind this glass, or perhaps already electric lights (how likely these are LEDs?) that can create a huge glowing halo – aureola – in the darkness.

Mirrors (or ‘mirrors’) are often found in the scenes with Saint Anna. It was the de Beer’s scene of the birth of Saint Mary that first triggered my research into all these mirrors/’mirrors’ story (see De Beer & The Grandma’s Mirror). It would be great to find something mirror-like in this relief of the Mary’s birth too, but alas, I found nothing:

One of the maids (in the bottom right corner)holds something that resembles a mirror – but in reality it’s more likely a saucer, I am afraid:

There are myriads of very interesting architectural and design details there, everywhere, and I am sure some of them could bring insights into many mirror stories, but there are almost no chances to explore these vignettes in detail. It’s not allowed to take pictures there, but it’s also very dark in the cathedral, so even if one would take them (I tried), there are still of very poor quality.

I will show just a few, they are the finishing details of the staircase leading to a cathedra (I think in catholic tradition it is called a pulpit).


This is the entrance to another Chapel, of Saint Mary herself…

where I found a lot of actual mirrors! I think I’ve never seen mirrors used to decorate Christian churches, but here mirrors galore!

Here is another one, reflecting the first two. Unfortunately, I can’ show the others as the guards didn’t allow taking any more pictures.

There were also monstrances carved in the wooden reliefs (in addition to the shining suns everywhere). Again, I managed to take only one pictures inside the chapel showing an example of this monstrance (see it at the left, on the pillar).


Below is another example, but if remember it was already outside this chapel, and on the panels in the main hall. Here is another shining object carved in the panel, to my knowledge it is called ciborium (?)

But the angels below hold another thing, a sort of shining cloud on a stick. I don’t know what it is, or how it is called. Later, already at home, I also found two other interesting objects on this relief that really look like convex mirrors, hold by tiny hands.

This is my best effort of a close-up (made out of not so good picture in the first place):


Another relief had the shining Sun-Face (and I assume two sunflowers):


I tried to find mirrors, or something resembling them, in various frescos and paintings, but again, alas, it wasn’t easy – the distances were too huge and the light was barely available. Some of the ceiling frescos are made by Goya, but I didn’t figure which ones. One have to come with a good binoculars to look at them.

I am sure many interesting things can be found in all these colossal paintings made by the best masters during few centuries. The picture below shows the challenge – a lot of content is too far above, and in the darkness.

Here is a good candidate for another mirror, the scene of the Birth of Mary (and I do not even know who is author, this wasn’t written anywhere). When being there I spotted no mirrors, but again, what if I had a high-res images, or at least had a chance to use a good binoculars?

Few more interesting – and seemingly Flemish – paintings.


When we were walking through the city, we also found a couple of interesting things. Although they are not mirrors, they may still help to explore the meaning of ‘mirrors’ in this paradigm.  Here is a sculptural group decorating the entrance to one of the town’s churches:

The angels hold an interesting monstrance:

And here is another example of a medallion with radiating beams, making it looking like the sun (or the star).

Interestingly, but the panel itself resembles a convex mirror

and has a painting embedded inside (my best efforts to see what’s in it):

<to continue>



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