Friday, May 10, 2019

St. Gabriel and a Brief History of Mirrors

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was searching through reference material for an art project and, as I sometimes do, started dissecting Orthodox images. I’ve learned to refrain from replicating icons, lock, stock and barrel, because they can, on the rare occasion, contain visuals that are contrary to Holy Scripture.

I wanted to create an image of the archangel Gabriel. In Orthodox iconography, he is usually depicted holding a slender staff in one hand and a round object in the other. That round object varies in appearance, and can look spherical and decidedly murky or flat with an image of Jesus Christ. It often has an “X” on it. Rarely, it contains an image of the Madonna and Child. I had to dig deeper.

As Icons are typically copies of other icons, so too are their explanations. It’s as if every Orthodox copied someone else’s homework verbatim. The phrase, “...often a mirror – made of jasper...” shows up in most Orthodox websites when describing icons of Gabriel. The jasper bit is a good hint that few REALLY understand why the mirror is there. Jasper is a material that has little, if any, bearing on the mirror. Still, everyone feels compelled to copy that particular detail. I dug deeper.

I finally found a better, more thoughtful description. There are, I believe, two reasons for the mirror.

The first reason is hinted at in Isaiah’s heavenly vision. While Christ discloses in Matthew 18:10 that the angels always see the face of God, Isaiah’s description of the seraphim has their eyes covered by a pair of wings. Orthodox tradition leans toward Isaiah, giving the impression that angels dare not look on the visage of the Lord. They apparently can, however, use a mirror. Call it a divine loophole.

The second reason for Gabriel’s mirror is for our own benefit. A truncated history of mirrors helps greatly with this.

Modern living doesn’t provide the benefit of understanding Biblical mirrors. If we come across a mirror today that is distorted or broken, we simply throw it out. We don’t tolerate that sort of imperfection. However, in ancient times, mirrors were extremely imperfect in their reflections. They were either made of some sort of polished metal or, as was more often the case in the New World, polished stone. Metal mirrors were rarely perfectly flat and had to be frequently polished. Polished stone could not be polished as well, and still had characteristic streaks and mottling of the rock itself. It is doubtful a Biblical mirror was ever trusted when applying eye liner.

Today we associate mirrors with vanity, but the Greek philosopher, Socrates, apparently encouraged their use. He believed a handsome person would see less of their beauty in a mirror’s reflection. Likewise, an ugly person would view themselves as more beautiful by using the same mirror.

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, described how we live by faith and not by sight: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12) It may be annoying that we can’t know or understand everything divine; that we can’t be face-to-face with God, but The Word and Sacraments are more than sufficient this side of paradise.

So my interpretation of Gabriel’s mirror, shown here in a detail of my piece, reflects a blurry image of our Lord, Christ Jesus. The full image of Gabriel will be revealed later – here in time. The face of our Lord will also be revealed – there, in eternity.

Detail of Christ Jesus from the piece, "Archangel Gabriel."
2019. (Copyright © Edward Riojas)

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