Romans and Roses, now with TRUE Mirrors

This is the second posting about Roman de la Rose and its mirrors. In the first one (Romans and Roses, and Mirrors) I briefly wrote about the poem, its authors, and the plot and also showed many examples of how its first mirror was depicted in various manuscripts over time.

This one will be mainly about the ‘second mirror’ of this poem (and I assume that the readers are already familiar with the main plot of the story to guess which one we are talking about.

I wrote ‘mirror’ because in fact it is not a mirror in a strict sense, but the fountain of Narcissus that our hero eventually finds in the garden (sometimes referred as the well). At this moment I would actually recommend to (re)read the story about Narcissus I wrote some time ago – Mirrors in Water: The Story of Narcissus) that can refresh your ideas about Narcissus himself and the iconography of this scene in art.  I myself have to actually re-write this story a bit: as I understand now, some of the ‘Narcissus mirrors’ that I am describing there were, in fact, illustrations of the story from Roman de la Rose (and in this way a meta-Narcissus story).

Thanks to this wonderful archive of the manuscripts (Roman de la Rose: Digital Library) I was able to collect plenty of examples of how this scene was depicted.

In some cases, the ‘fountain’ is looking more like a small spring (and in this case is closer to the original water surface that Narcissus was allegedly looking at):


Notice that in the majority of the cases its water surface indeed works like a mirror does reflect the face of the Lover (or rather it was depicted as such by the authors of these illuminations). Never mind that it wouldn’t be possible physically since we the streams of moving water don’t allow any reflection to appear.

But in most cases we see some sort of construction, resembling either a well or indeed a fountain:


In other cases we see much more prominent constructions

Their borders only reinforce the impression that we talk about mirror since water surface looks as if in a frame:


And eventually we see full-blown fountains, sometimes lavishly decorated:



If we remember, the Lover was first quite scared to look into this fountain, and convinced himself to try only a certain amount of hesitations.

Similar to the scenes of entering the garden and encounters with the Lady Idleness, we sometimes find not one, but two illustrations of this scene, Before..and


and After, when the Hero has already decided to look at the fountain:

In the previous posting we’ve seen many examples of the scene with entering the garden, but the one with the Narcissus fountains is even more popular; if manuscripts are illuminated at all, most likely they also have this scene among the illuminations, too.

This last one is an illustration I have used to start this posting:

The scene was so crucial that in some of the edition it was also placed on the very first page, together with an image of the still sleeping Lover:

And in the last posting I have already shown this illumination when the fountain of Narcissus is shown together with the scene of entering the garden:

Here I have a problem, of course. On one side, all these reflections are not mirrors in a strict sense so I can not apply the logic of ‘technology analysis’. Yet the way how these reflections are staged, and then depicted does, of course, reflect an idea of a mirror at any given time, which make all these illuminations really interesting material for this blog.


But there is more to it.  I have shown plenty illuminations so far (thirty-five, to be precise), but all of them show only the Lover and the fountain (with or without his reflection).

Here is an example that shows the moment when our hero has actually spotted the Rose in the fountain.

In the next illumination this rosebush is already presented in 3D:

For the next one, I guess that it shows the same rosebush in water:

And the next example shows not two but three (!) different illuminations showing the discovery of the Rose in this fountain.

First, there is nothing there:

Then the Sun shines:

And the Rose appears:

Few more similar examples:

The Hero looks at the Well..

… that suddenly reveals the Rose:

And another example of the emerging rosebush (I guess):

Wait, wait, you may exclaim! What Rose? How water surface can reflect something that is not there?

Speaking of the Rose, a short explanation (or rather a repetition) is due. As I wrote in the previous posting, this was indeed a magical fountain (sometimes refered as a well): not only it reflected the Hero but it was also able to display an entire garden to him, not unlike a 3D television of today.

The key enablers of these magic power were the two crystals that lay on the bottom of this fountain. I can’t resist putting here a long piece from the original Chaucer’s version:

(I have deliberately left the marks of the proof-reader, to show how much the language changed; we can guess the meaning for the majority of red words, but it takes times and efforts).  For those who don’t want to struggle, here is the plain English version of the events (in the translation by Charles Dahlberg):

“At the bottom of the fountain were two crystal stones upon which I gazed with great attention.

There is one thing I want to tell you which, I think, you will consider a marvel when you hear it: when the sun, that sees all, throws its rays into the fountain and when its lights descends to the bottom, then more than a hundred colors appear in the crystals which, on the account of the sun, become yellow, blue and red.

The crystals are so wonderful and have such power that the entire place – trees, flowers and whatever adorns the garden – appears there all in order. To help you understand, I will give you an example.

Just as the mirror shows things that are in front of you, without cover, in their true covers and shapes, just so, I tell you truly, do the crystals reveal the whole condition of the garden, without deception, to those who gaze into the water, for always, wherever they are, they see one half of the garden, and if they turn, they may see the rest.  There is nothing so small, however hidden or shut up that is not shown there in the crystal as it were painted in detail.

It is the perilous mirror in which proud Narcissus gazed at his face and his gray eyes; on account of this mirror he afterward lay dead, flat on his back. Whoever admires himself in this mirror, can have no protection, no physician,  since anything that he sees with his eye puts him on a road of love.

This mirror has put many a valiant to death, for the wisest, most intelligent and carefully instructed are all surprised and captured here.  Out of this mirror a new madness comes upon men: Here hearts are changed; intelligence and moderation have no business here; where there is one simple will to love, where no one can be counseled.

Amon the thousands thing in the mirror, I saw rosebushes loaded with roses.”

After reading this text, you can understand what is depicted on this following illumination:

These are the crystals – only we see more of them than two.

The next one shows two ‘things’ (looking more like the bubbles):

Here I assume that the intention was also to depict two ‘things’:

And here we see the shining light emitted by these crystals:

And the next one is a great example of Before & After: In the first one the Lover looks into the stream:

and then he is amazed by the view of multicolored crystals:

It is important to pause here, and reflect (sic!) what have learned. These two magical crystals somehow able to transform an average well (or a fountain) into a magical mirror, the one that can reflect reality but can also show a hyper-reality, the reality of higher order, so to speak. This ‘mirror’ apparently works like a huge telescope (or a microscope, or both?) allowing the viewer to see things far away, and and see the ‘true’ things.

The ‘crystalline mirror’ of the Roman de la Rose may thus be seen as the speculum mundi, as noted by Claire Nouvet in her very interesting article “An Allegorical Mirror. The Pool of Narcissus in Romance of the Rose“.  I would only add that it is rather a speculum hortus, as it reflects not the whole world but only the garden.

I actually wrote about this concept, of a ‘mirror as a visor’, a portal into different worlds (see Tele-Mirrors of the Middle Ages). But those mirror-visors didn’t have this capacity to overview these worlds, and even less so to show their ‘true nature’.

Claire Nouvet also offers a range of interesting interpretations of these two crystals, some of her own and many other formulated by different researchers over time.  This including, for instance, the reference to the human vision (and the two crystals may literally mean two eyes, as in the middle ages they believes that the eyes work like reflective surfaces (=mirrors). There are also more allegorical versions, somewhat into the direction of Alice Through the Looking Glass (in these versions our Lover is, in fact, in the mirror world of Love).

There is another interesting article published not so long ago, in 2012: Self, Psyche and Symbolism in the Roman de la Rose, by Amy Kincaid Todey. Here we have a lengthy account connecting the mirrors of the Roman de la Rose with the Jungian theory, anima-animus, collective unconsciousness and similar stuff. I don’t have to repeat how opposite the ideas behind this art-mirrors-art project to everything universalistic (and the ideas of Jung and his followers are one of the best examples of such).

Just to be meticulous, I will mention one more paper, Marvelous Crystals, Perilous Mirrors: Le Roman De la Rose and the Discontinuity of the Romance Subject, by Jerry Root (in this case it is only a short abstract).  I will quote only one piece of text :

“First, the surface of water in the fountain creates the perilous mirror. Second, inside the fountain, the bed of the river is covered with marvelous crystals that sparkle and reflect the garden. For the questing romance subject, the crystals seem to allegorize the progress and possibilities of love. The mirror surface, on the other hand, seems to allegorize obstacles to love, including the danger of pride and self-absorption. The magical power of the crystals also seems to fulfill the many promises of revelation that the text has repeatedly announced. Likewise, the dangerous surface of the fountain seems to extend and to expand the warnings about what a lover ought to avoid, about the obstacles to love.”


All these research papers are interesting… though over-researched, and over-interpreting, to my taste. I consider them inscribing too much into the text, and in many ways colonizing the past with our contemporary ideas. Interestingly, but plenty of illustrations that I have presented here do not support any of these interpretative assumptions.

Speaking about illustrations, I will show a few more. In the majority of cases we have seen the Lover alone. There are few examples when other figures are present (and I am not always sure who are they):

I can’t remember that other people were coming to this fountain/well – except, perhaps, Cupid who, I believe, started to shoot his Arrow of Love soon after our Lover dis-covered the Rose.

And this one is confusing for me: horses?

And this is confusing me totally: Who are all these creatures?  I recognize the Lady Idleness, but the Gates (Mouth) of Hell? With demons? The Death? The Cerberus?



All in all, it was a great journey, very laborious and time-consuming but also very insightful. It has also prepared me to more journeys into the meaning of medieval mirrors (there will be many more here in the future).

I have shown two large clusters of mirror-works, one related to the Lady Idleness, and another one with this well and crystals. It just happens that illustrators of the Roman de le Rose depicted more cases, and will show them too, just to close this story for a moment.

Here, for examples, the illumination from one of the later manuscripts that apparently shows the author of the Roman de la Rose, Guillaume de Lorris – and with a mirror on his table!

Although if we follow the genre and the style of the poem, this could as well the Lover, only when he got older and describes his marvelous dream. The mirror that we see is not, of course, the symbol of beautification or vanity, but like the reference to the Reason or may be even Prudence (I wrote about these mirrors in the Mirrors of the ‘Male Cluster’.  

Earlier I showed a few illustrations with the sleeping Lover (usually they are the first, opening illustration of the manuscript). One of them depicts this scene in more details (including the Lover washing his hands – or perhaps looking at yet another water surface?)

What is interesting is the object that hangs in his bedhead:

That is not a mirror, but rather a medallion of some sort (in Russia they would call it an icon, but in Western Europe there is no single common word that would describe such artifacts.) I wrote numerous time that in some cases convex mirrors used as a replacement (emulation) of such ‘icons’.

Later I found a version of this scene that may even depict such ‘mirror’, but I don’t have good enough a copy to be certain:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s