Glass jacket image

Glass was selected by Discover magazine as one of the 20 best science books of 2002.

"At the beginning of this sophisticated query into the importance of glassmaking, the authors imagine our civilization without glass. Macfarlane and Martin then argue that glassmaking was critical in bringing about Renaissance painting and the scientific revolution. Claims of such embracing historical causation require convincing evidence, which the authors interestingly present. . . . A novel and inquisitive examination of a common but remarkable technology."

"Marfarlane and Martin . . . make the case for the centrality of glass in the artistic renaissance and scientific revolution that took place in Western Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. They discuss the origins of glass making and trace its development and usage across centuries and multiple cultures (Europe, the Middle East, China, India, and Japan). . . . The result is a thoroughly readable, carefully argued work, filled with delightful surprises."
Library Journal

"Glass covers the roles glass has played in the past, and so draws on a huge range of fields: archaeology, the history of technology, science and art, the psychology of perception and philosophy. Then [the authors] go one better in revealing how all these disciplines interconnect, to intriguing effect. A stimulating read that will make you think about the material world in a new way."
New Scientist

"A delightful book. . . . Presents intriguing arguments, which range generously and enjoyably over a wide field of inquiry."
The Times (UK)


History and Folklore of Mirrors

"Amaterasu and the Mirror"
Tells the story of how a mirror was used to lure Amaterasu, Shinto goddess of the sun, out of a cave.

"A Brief History of Mirrors"
Covers the Greco-Roman period to the nineteenth century in the west.

"Burning Mirrors"
Discusses the use of mirrors to start fires by the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Incas, and Romans.

"Magic Mirrors, or Through the Looking Glass"
Explores Japanese and Chinese "magic mirrors," which reflect an image onto the wall that cannot actually be seen in the surface of the mirror.

Magic Mirrors, Time Cameras, and Catoptromancy
Illustrated article on the use of mirrors for fortune-telling and other magical purposes.

Medieval and Renaissance Mirrors
Links to several dozen paintings and other European artworks involving mirrors from the fourteenth through mid-seventeenth centuries.

Mirror Folklore
Brief discussion of mirror folklore, especially beliefs involving projection of the soul into mirrors.

"The Mirror of Matsuyama"
Retells a Japanese folktale about a metal hand mirror and a daughter's devotion to the image of her deceased mother that she saw reflected within it.

Mirror Superstitions
Brief article on western mirror superstitions, including bad luck from breaking a mirror (and methods to reverse it).

Mirror with Geometric Patterns and the Four Spirits
In-depth discussion of the symbolism of a Han dynasty Chinese bronze mirror, as well as a wide-ranging historical overview of the use and folklore of mirrors.

Mirrors and the Occult
Encyclopedia entry on the occult lore and magical uses of mirrors.

Mirrors in Chinese Science and Folklore
Part of a larger article on false feng shui cures; scroll down a screen to see the part about mirrors.

Mirrors in Vampire Folklore
Explores Eastern European folklore about mirrors and the soul, as well as why Bram Stoker chose to have his Dracula cast no reflection in a mirror.

"Of a Mirror and a Bell"
A story about a Japanese woman who could not bear the loss of her metal hand mirror, from Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904).

"Surpassing Glass: Shakespeare's Mirrors"
An article about mirrors in Shakespeare's day.

"The Technology of Reflection: Renaissance Mirrors of Steel and Glass"
An article about the new crystal glass mirrors and the changes they brought to, and reflected, in Renaissance culture.

History of Glass and Glass Associations

Association for the History of Glass
The association aims "to advance public knowledge and interest in the historical, archaeological, aesthetic, and technological study of glass for all periods of history and in all parts of the world."

"A Brief History of Glass"
From 5,000 B.C. to the present, with a helpful timeline. The same web site also has a dictionary of glass.

The Glass Circle
A London, UK-based society "for the appreciation and understanding of glass."

Glass Encyclopedia
"The ultimate reference source on glass." Covers a wide variety of types of glass, from art deco to Wedgwood, and has links to other web sites and articles on glass.

Glass in Fairy Tales
An archived discussion from the SurLaLune Fairy Tales discussion board.

History of Glass Inventions
Gives brief accounts of and links to longer articles about the history of glass, mirrors, eyeglasses, sunglasses, and contact lenses.

History of Stained Glass
Illustrated overview of the techniques and history of stained glass making, from the Gothic age to the present.

History of Stained Glass in America
Traces the history of stained glass in America from the 1600s to the present.

Resource on Glass
This resource prepared by the Corning Museum of Glass ranges from "Chemistry of Glass" to "Glass in the Far East."

Society of Glass Technology
This society's aims "are to encourage and advance the study of the history, art, science, design, manufacture, after treatment, distribution and end use of glass of any and every kind."

"Wondrous Glass: Reflections on the World of Rome, c.50 B.C.-A.D. 650"
Web version of an exhibit on the history of Roman glass and glassmaking from the Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan.

An excerpt from
Glass: A World History
by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin

The Glass Mirror and the Renaissance
Art and Individuality

As many have pointed out, we tend to become too familiar with the world around us. The mirror, by reversing it, throws it into a new light and, in a curious way, makes it more intense. We, and particularly artists, see the world differently with a mirror.

Filarete, a fifteenth-century contemporary, wrote of the discovery of the laws of perspective by Brunelleschi: "If you should desire to represent something in another, easier way, take a mirror and hold it up in front of the thing you want to do. Look into it, and you will see the outlines of the thing more easily, and whatever is closer or further will appear foreshortened to you. Truly, I think this is the way Pippo de Ser Brunellesco discovered this perspective, which was not used in other times." That the mirror was the mother of Renaissance perspective is a theme taken up by Samuel Edgerton in his The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective. He carefully traces the various converging sets of ideas from Greek and Arabic philosophy through medieval optics, geometry and cartography which led to the fateful moment in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence in 1425 when Brunelleschi made his major discovery of the laws of perspective. Mirrors had been standard in artists' studios for several hundred years, for example Giotto had painted "with the aid of mirrors." Yet Brunelleschi's extraordinary breakthrough is the culminating moment. Without what Edgerton calculates to be a twelve-inch-square flat mirror, the most important single change in the representation of nature by artistic means in the last thousand years could not, Edgerton argues, have occurred.

Leonardo called the mirror the "master of painters." He wrote that "Painters oftentimes despair of their power to imitate nature, on perceiving how their pictures are lacking in the power of relief and vividness which objects possess when seen in a mirror. . . ." It is no accident that a mirror is the central device in two of the greatest of paintings—Van Eyck's "Marriage of Arnolfini," and Velazquez's "Las Meninas." It was a tool that could be used to distort and hence make the world a subject of speculation. It was also a tool for improving the artist's work, as Leonardo recommended. "When you wish to see whether your whole picture accords with what you have portrayed from nature take a mirror and reflect the actual object in it. Compare what is reflected with your painting and carefully consider whether both likenesses of the subject correspond, particularly in regard to the mirror." He elaborates on this as follows: "You should take the mirror as your master, that is a flat mirror, because on its surface things in many ways bear a resemblance to a painting. That is to say, you see a picture which is painted on a flat surface showing things as in relief: the mirror on a flat surface does the same." The aim is to paint so that the picture looks "like something from nature seen in a large mirror." Finally, it gave the artist a third eye, an eye on a stalk as it were, so that he could see himself. Without a mirror, the great autobiographical portraits, culminating in the series by Rembrandt, could not have been painted.

It may be that mirrors increase the intensity of human sight in other ways as well. Seeing is a dynamic process. If we stare directly at an object for a long time, we cease to see it. Only if we change our angle of vision, sweeping the eye across the object, do we continue to see it. Mirrors help us to see clearly for, whether held in the hand or altered by the movement of the person who gazes into them, they increase the amount of movement which is projected onto the eye. Furthermore, they are often inside dark rooms, reflecting the brightness of the outside world. The eye that has compensated for the dark surroundings sees the world all the more intensely in the mirror, just as a television set is much more effective in a darkened room.

Mirrors and Individuality

Long ago the historian Burckhardt suggested that one central feature of the Renaissance was a new concept of the individual, unique to the west and to the period from about the fourteenth century. While many have subsequently queried the dating, suggesting that the heightened concept of the individual probably went back to the thirteenth and perhaps twelfth centuries, it is usually agreed that this tendency towards stress on the individual grew stronger and reached its peak from the fifteenth century onwards. What seems indisputable is that a great shift took place. Furthermore, this was initially a western European phenomenon, as more recent anthropologists have confirmed. Could this also have been connected to glass?

Of course, it would be absurd to believe that there was a single reason for this, and it is easy to see the force of many of the explanations put forward to account for a reorientation away from the group and towards the individual. One of the most important of these is religion. At a very general level, it has been suggested that it was the single soul posited by the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition that stressed individualism. Others have suggested that the concepts of sin and individual responsibility are the key to the growing individualism.

The link could work in various ways. These include that exercise of choice and free will emphasised by a religion born out of oppression and founded on Christ's individualistic teaching—for example, to follow him and renounce one's family. The link between choice and individualism is obvious. The individualistic westerner is a sovereign chooser, deciding what to do, what to have, what to be and what to believe. Another link could be through the practice developed by the Catholic Church to deal with sin, namely that form of introspection known as the confessional, which made the individual examine him- or herself and become self-reflective about individual personality. Yet although this seems to be a necessary condition, the variations in time and space do not fit the whole of Christendom; for example, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was far less individualistic. So scholars have pointed to other factors.

Some have suggested that the recovery of classical ideas was the catalyst. Others have argued that the growth of a market economy and particularly of money transactions separated out the individual from the wider group. Money, individualism and the morality of the market economy, it is argued, are all closely related. Yet even adding to this other factors such as the growth of republican government and the middle class in Italy and the Netherlands, the full explanation of one of the greatest transformations in human history still eludes us. This is partly because none of these explanations seems to reach down deeply enough into the psychological realm where the changes occurred. Some extra factor, one feels, was needed—something which would not wholly account for the change in itself, but was a necessary catalyst.

This factor, some historians have argued, was the development of fine glass mirrors, which proliferated at the very time and in the very area where the change took place and could have provided the final factor that was needed by allowing people to see themselves in a new way. Some who have traced the rise of autobiographical writing during the Renaissance have suggested that this "discovery of the self" was linked to mirrors. Likewise it is pointed out that Renaissance artists such as Düurer explored the inner man through the use of mirrors during their painting. This is an argument forcefully put by Lewis Mumford and he cites the self-examining portraits of Rembrandt as the high point in this artistic introspection.

The timing of the causal link is right; good mirrors developed in almost exact pace with the development of a new individualism between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The geography is right; the epicentres of Renaissance individualism in painting and other art forms were Italy and the Netherlands, two of the most advanced areas of mirror-making and their use. The psychological link is plausible; people saw themselves in a new way that detached them from the crowd and allowed them to inspect themselves more carefully. We can see the process at work in a number of great artists. Yet as with all supposed connections there are doubts. Most cultures have mirrors of some sort and one wants to know more about how mirrors are used, the relative clarity of metal and glass mirrors and so on.

On the question of use, it is clearly important to discover the way in which mirrors were regarded. In the west they were largely looked into to see the person. This was both a cause and consequence of growing individualism. In China and Japan and perhaps other civilisations mirrors were used for different purposes. It is worth examining one example in some detail to see the differences that mirrors and culture could make.

A number of analysts, both foreign and Japanese, agree that in Japan mirrors were traditionally used in a very different way from that in the west. They looked through the mirror image and through the "observing self." The mirror was not an instrument of vanity and self-assessment, but of contemplation, as can be seen in Shinto shrines where the mirror is the central object. The individual does not gaze into the mirror to see a rounded portrait of the physical and social person in front of the mirror, but to gaze through the physical into the innermost, mystical self. The Japanese have tried to explain how people in the west look in mirrors out of a compound of narcissism and individualism, while the Japanese look through the mirror. If the Japanese want to see the reflections of their personalities, they do so through the mirror of society, the reflection of the effects of their actions and words on others.

Both the material and the use were thus different. Mirrors were sacred objects in Japan. They were kept in shrines. They also, it would appear, were kept for special use, in particular grooming oneself, but were not hung on the walls of ordinary rooms. The traveller Thunberg noted this in the later eighteenth century: "Mirrors do not decorate the walls, although they are in general use at the toilet." Thunberg also noted that among the things not found in people's apartments were "looking-glasses." There were no glass mirrors, he said, for all were made of steel. It appears that one reason for this was the superb workmanship in steel of the Japanese allowed them to make steel mirrors of high quality. In fact, the use of steel or bronze may have limited their size and possibly their effects on the viewer. The fact that they tended to be convex may also be important in limiting the amount that could be seen in them—they were basically for hair arranging, eyebrow plucking and teeth blackening in domestic use.

The Japanese metal mirror reflects back only about 20 per cent of the light that hits it and is slightly coloured. It could thus be argued that because the eye is so sophisticated and appreciates visual perfection, the difference between a very good, silver backed, glass mirror of the kind being made in Europe from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and a quite good metal mirror is not just one of degree, but of kind. A subtle change in the artefact permits a different perception of life.

Therefore we could say that what we call a "mirror" in most cultures encouraged imagination and stimulated thought, but not a deep staring at what was portrayed. The western glass mirror showed what appeared to be real even though it was in fact almost magically reversing things, representing three-dimensional space on a flat surface and encouraging the eye to see foreground and background.

Mirrors are indeed extraordinary and it is not too fanciful to believe that the development of the glass mirror in only one civilisation not only altered its art, which can be shown, but also gradually altered the whole perception of what human beings are. One certainly has an "elective affinity": individualism and high quality mirrors grow together. Yet one cannot see a simple and direct causal link of a necessary and sufficient kind. Glass mirrors, on their own, would not have effected the huge transformation which we call Renaissance individualism. Yet they may have been one of the necessary enabling causes, without which the abstraction of the individual from the group would not have taken the course it did.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 63-66 and 70-75 of Glass: A World History by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the authors.

Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin
Glass: A World History
©2002, 268 pages, 10 halftones. 5-1/2 x 8
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-50028-4

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Glass: A World History.

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