Mirror with a Pair of Addorsed Sphinxes with Scorpion Tails
Made in Iran or Turkey
H. 7/16 in. (1.1 cm)
Diam. 4 1/8 in. (10.5 cm)
Wt. 8.8 oz. (249.5 g)
Bequest of Mary Anna Palmer Draper, 1915
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.
Two Mirrors with Sphinxes: Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin I.2200 and MMA 15.43.285.
Polished-metal mirrors were known across the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece to China, and continued to be for centuries later. 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. While exact workshops remain to be determined, the dates of the known examples—ranging from A.H. 548 to A.H. 675 (A.D. 1153–1276)—together with their provenances and findspots suggest that, despite a relatively short phase of manufacture (12th–13th century), cast-bronze mirrors enjoyed wide popularity within and beyond the Seljuq realm both during their reign and for a long time afterward. The simple technique of sand-cast bronze would have enabled mass production for a broad market, a hypothesis confirmed by the large number of mirrors with similar motifs and the relation of only a few examples to specific patrons (e.g., cat. 7 in this volume, David Collection 4/1996).
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,(MMA 1978.348.2) or, like the present examples, 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 (see cat. 7 in this volume, David Collection 4/1996).
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. The four sphinxes in the Berlin mirrir  each with a human female head seen from the front on a winged feline body seen from the side, recall the chasing animals (predominantly dogs and hares) that were a frequent motif in Seljuq art, specifically in courtly scenes that evoked the thrill of the royal hunt. And indeed, to a certain extent, the sphinx’s offer of protection may have been conflated with the notion of the sovereign ruling justly over his subjects.
The MMA 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]
2. On mirrors in general, see Scerrato, Umberto. “Specchi islamici con sfingi scorpioniche.” Quaderni di Vicino Oriente 7 (2014), pp. 1491–1514. First published in Arte orientale in Italia V, pp. 61–94. Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, 6. Rome, 1980; and Carboni, Stefano. “Narcissism or Catoptromancy?: Mirrors from the Medieval Eastern Islamic World.” In Baker, Patricia L., and Barbara Brend, eds. Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári. London, 2006, pp. 161–70.
3. Ward, Rachel [M]. Islamic Metalwork. London, 1993, pp. 30–31.
4. See three mirrors in the Metropolitan Museum, one with chasing animals(42.136), one with a falconer (1976.158.1), and one with a human borne by an eagle, interpreted as either Ganymede and the eagle or Zal and the simurgh (1976.158.2); illustrated in Carboni 2006 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 165–67. For a rare nonfigural example with a repeating pattern of hexagonal and star motifs, see Metropolitan Museum (40.170.265); illustrated in ibid., p. 162.
5. Rice, Tamara Talbot. The Seljuks in Asia Minor. Ancient Peoples and Places. New York, 1961, p. 264, fig. 47; Rice, D. Talbot. Islamic Art. New York and Washington, D.C., 1965, fig. 184.
6. [Savage-Smith, Emilie]. “Talismanic Mirrors and Plaques.” In Maddison, Francis, and Emilie Savage-Smith. Science, Tools and Magic. Pt. 1, Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, edited by Julian Raby, vol. 12, pt. 1. London and Oxford, 1997, especially p. 128, no. 52; Carboni 2006 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 163–64.
7. See Baer, Eva. Sphinxes and Harpies in Medieval Islamic Art: An Iconographical Study. Oriental Notes and Studies, 9. Jerusalem, 1965.; Otto-Dorn, Katharina. “The Griffin-Sphinx Ensemble.” In Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Edinburgh in 1982. Islamic Art and Architecture, 4. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1994, pp. 303–9. For a more in-depth discussion and typology of mirrors comparable to MMA 15.43.285, see Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above), who at p. 1494 n. 14 also refers to one mirror with addorsed sphinxes made of silver, the exception among the many bronze examples.
8. Published in Berlin Drache, Phönix, Doppeladler: Fabelwesen in der islamischen Kunst. Exh. cat., Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, 1993–94. Catalogue by Joachim Gierlichs. Berlin, 1993, p. 54, no. 52; Gladiss, Almut von. Glanz und Substanz: Metallarbeiten in der Sammlung des Museums für Islamische Kunst. Berlin, 2012, p. 55, no. 33. 9. The motif of four chasing sphinxes also relates to several inlaid brasses of Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ (cats. 12a, b in this volume: Victoria and Albert Museum, London 905-1907 and Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich 26-N-118), in which, however, the wings of the sphinxes are joined and interlaced. Otto-Dorn 1994 (reference in note 7 above), p. 304, interprets the interlaced wings as the solar wheel, an emblem of rotating sphinxes relating to the perceived movement of the sun.
10. Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 bove); Carboni 2006 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 163–64.
11. Scerrato 2014 (see note 10 above) discusses several possibilities; see especially pp. 1499–1500 for three interpretations related to Scorpio that in its ancient definition had specific talismanic powers: 1) to represent the particularly favorable and ideal astrological moment when the two luminary signs, the sun (represented by the lion body) and the moon (a female face), are conjunct in Scorpio (a scorpion tail); 2) to represent the astrological sign of Scorpio through his planetary overlords Mars (scorpion’s tail), the sun (lion), and Venus (female head); 3) to represent the three signs of the zodiac Virgo, Venus, and Scorpio.
12. Ülkü Bates, personal communication with the author. Bates witnessed the opening of a türbe (13th–14th century) in Amasya, Anatolia, in which a chainless mirror with addorsed sphinxes lay on the chest of the inhumed body. Scerrato 2014 (reference in note 2 above), p. 1498 n. 38, notes that, in the regions of the Black and Caspian Seas, mirrors were also found in tombs, resting on the buried bodies, and that the Russia Tatars (18th–19th century) placed mirrors under the foundations of their houses to protect against fires. On the magic inscriptions and their dating, see Savage-Smith 1997 (reference in note 6 above), especially p. 128, no. 52; and Carboni 2006 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 163–64.
Inscription: Inscribed in Arabic in kufic as a framing band:
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
Glory, eternal life, dominion, splendor, honor, beatitude, strength, nobility, sovereignty, increase, felicity, and strength given to its owner forever.
Read and translated by Abdullah Ghouchani
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).