How does a mirror show us Christ?

After Dante passes the last ledge in Purgatory and braves the flames that he compares to molten glass in temperature, the sun sets and he can not go further. Even though he is now at the top of Mount Purgatory the rule that no progress is made in the dark remains. He lies down on steps between Statius and Virgil and has a dream about Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s Old Testament wives.

Paradiso, Canto 27, lines 96-107, Longfellow

Youthful and beautiful in dreams methought

I saw a lady walking in a meadow,
Gathering flowers; and singing she was saying:
“Know whosoever may my name demand

That I am Leah, and go moving round
My beauteous hands to make myself a garland.
To please me at the mirror, here I deck me,

But never does my sister Rachel leave
Her looking—glass, and sitteth all day long.
To see her beauteous eyes as eager is she,

As I am to adorn me with my hands;
Her, seeing, and me, doing satisfies.”

Old Testament Rachel is here presented as a contemplative and someone to imitate. Leah feels the need to do something to herself before she looks in the mirror but Rachel doesn’t. Both, however, are considered to be holy and Rachel’s action is in fact so appropriate that she is given a very high place in Paradise, quite close to Our Lady.

I struggle with this image. For one thing, an obvious secular mirror reference is from the fairy tale, Snow White, where the queen consults a mirror which is not reflective of her inner state AT ALL. There are other references in fairy tales where a mirror shows what is happening elsewhere (Beauty and the Beast) or even allows transportation to another place. This doesn’t really give insight into Dante’s dream.

However, other references closer to 1300 A.D. have quite a different vision of mirrors. Saint Clare, writing in the 1200’s, told Agnes of Bohemia,

Happy, indeed, is the one permitted to share in this sacred banquet …
Because the vision of him is ….. a mirror without tarnish.

Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it,

Moreover, in this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility, and charity beyond words, as you will be able, with God’s grace, to contemplate throughout the entire mirror.

Clearly what Saint Clare expects to see in a mirror is Jesus Christ, that mirror suspended upon the wood of the cross.

An article by Rita Mary Bradley (Speculum 29 (1954): 111. ) points out that Christ as a mirror of holy living comes from Saint Augustine in his Rule written around 400 A.D. Later Hugh of Saint Victor, one of the stars in the second circle of Canto 12 in Paradise, introduced by Saint Bonaventure, expanded on this idea. A mirror shows an example that ought to be followed.

Biblically this is certainly where Saint Paul was going in 1 Corinthians 13, when he said that we see in a mirror darkly now but then, face to face. We shall see even as we are seen.

A walking friend of mine pointed out that we look in the mirror to correct physical blemishes so in that sense the metaphor is a true one.

My daughter gets this, even if I don’t. She casually spoke of seeing herself mirrored in a friend. When I demanded clarification, she said that when others do things that, for example, annoy her she sometimes then sees that she herself does the same thing. And then she can change if necessary.

5 thoughts on “How does a mirror show us Christ?

  1. I am amazed by this because everything I know about mirrors is the vain woman adorning herself in the mirror and her face looks back and it is a skull, and then again, Count Dracula doesn’t appears in the mirror at all. But this does fit in as the happy other end of the spectrum?


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