Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Mirror with a Pair of Addorsed Sphinxes with Scorpion Tails

Object Name:
12th–13th century
Made in Iran or Turkey
Bronze; cast
H. 7/16 in. (1.1 cm) Diam. 4 1/8 in. (10.5 cm) Wt. 8.8 oz. (249.5 g)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Mary Anna Palmer Draper, 1914
Accession Number:
Not on view
Polished-metal mirrors have existed since ancient times, from Egypt to Greece to China. The medieval Islamic period, specifically during the rise of the Seljuqs and other Turkish dynasties, witnessed the production of a large number of circular cast-bronze mirrors with a fully decorated reverse. Despite a relatively short phase of manufacture (twelfth to the thirteenth century), they enjoyed wide popularity within and beyond the Seljuq realm. The simple technique of sand-cast bronze would have enabled mass production for a broad market, as demonstrated by the large number of mirrors with similar motifs (specifically the type featuring a pair of sphinxes with scorpion tails). Beyond their practical function, they served as talismans, given their benedictory inscriptions and apotropaic motifs. Some are believed to have been used for divination or possess other magical powers.
Medieval bronze mirrors vary in size and weight, forming two distinct groups according to their shape and physical characteristics: circular, with a straight handle soldered or joined to the outer rim, or, like the present example, with a pierced knob on the reverse (Chinese-type mirrors). Those with a fixed handle were meant to be held, while the second type could be held or suspended by a cord or metal ring strung through the hole in the knob. Most mirrors bear figural decoration on their reverse sides, with iconography ranging from the zodiac to heraldic animals, the courtly cycle to ancient mythology. One rare, monumental mirror bears the image of Solomon and his jinns on one side and the Ayat al-kursi (Throne Verse) from the Qur’an (2:255) on the other.

The varied and sometimes striking iconography depicted on these mirrors has given rise to myriad interpretations as to their use and meaning, ones that go well beyond their practical function of providing a reflective surface. While certain scholars have gone so far as to suggest that these objects were not, in fact, mirrors but weights, their function as talismans is widely accepted, as reinforced by the benedictory inscriptions and apotropaic motifs that so often adorn them. At least some examples are believed to have been used for divination or to possess other magical powers, a hypothesis supported by several examples that bear magic inscriptions on their polished sides (even though these likely date from later periods). Depending on a mirror’s size, epigraphic content, and iconography, its virtues and perceived functions could be compounded by the interaction of any or all of these elements.

The most common imagery depicted on mirrors relates to the sphinx, a fantastic creature revered since ancient times for its protective powers and solar/astral connotations. This mirror depicts two addorsed sphinxes, each a mirror reflection of the other. This composition was the most popular to appear on medieval Islamic mirrors. The human female head is again rendered frontally, while the feline body is seen in profile. The tail comprises a series of small dots ending in a curved peak, redolent of a scorpion’s tail. The sphinx has been associated with the sun since ancient times, and this mirror may be compounding that power by presenting it in combination with the astrological sign of Scorpio. Because such mirrors have magic inscriptions on their backs (probably added in later eras) and/or have been discovered in burials, laid in some instances on the breast of the deceased, they draw strong comparisons to magic amulets, revered for their apotropaic power well into post-Seljuq times.

Deniz Beyazit in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic, in kufic script, in band around border; translation: "Glory, longevity, power, splendor, honor, praise, beatitude, eminence, sovereignty, increase, might, grace - given to the owner forever"

In kufic script:
العز و البقا و الدولة و البها و الرفعة و الثنا و القدرة و العلا و الملک و النما و الغبطة و القدرة و الالا لصاحبه ابدا
Mary Anna Palmer Draper, New York (until d. 1914; bequeathed to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Transformed: Medieval Syrian and Iranian Art in the Early 20th cent.," February 10, 2016–July 17, 2016, no catalogue.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 157a.

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 137, ill. fig. 78 (b/w).

Baker, Patricia L., and Barbara Brend, ed. "Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvari." In Sifting Sands, Reading Signs. London: Furnace Publishing, 2006. fig. 163, ill. fig. 3a (b/w).

Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 157b, pp. 246-248, ill. p. 247 (color).

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