Looking in the mirror of Renaissance art

Genevieve Warwick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This paper proceeds through a dual focus by bringing together for the first time the use of the mirror in art-making and art viewing, in order to redefine our understanding of Renaissance painting. It considers the mirror both as an instrument of artistic practice, and as an emblem of pictorial representation within painting. Inaugurated by Brunelleschi’s great optical experiment staged at the door of Florence Cathedral on the one hand, and Van Eyck’s painted mirror within the Arnolfini Double Portrait on the other, a Renaissance art of mimetic resemblance was predicated on a deeply-worked approximation between the mirror reflection and contemporaneous theorizations of painting. In a conceptualization of art as mimesis the mirror served the painter in the translation of the visible world of three dimensions into the flat plane of art. This practice-based elision of the picture plane with the mirror conflated the surface of painting with the instrument and exemplar of its own production. The close affinity between the mirror and the painting, as Leonardo's notes make manifest, underpinned both the theory and practice of Renaissance art as constituted in the studied imitation of visual observation. The essay argues that the mirror reflection became, both within the Renaissance workshop and within representation, the instrument and the definition of what a painting was.

The research for this article was funded by the AHRC Translating Cultures highlight award (£106,717) and forms part of a book-length publication on the theme of Art and Technology in Early Modern Europe, which situated the mirror within a history of visual technologies as fundamental to art’s histories. It appeared in a special issue of the world-leading journal of the Association of Art History UK, Art History, of which I was also, with Richard Taws, the commissioning editor and author of the introductory essay, "After Prometheus: Art and Technology in Early Modern Europe." Further research stemming from this article has recently led to the award of a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, 'The Mirrors of Art: Painting and Reflection in the Early Modern World' (£143,803, 2017-20), where the aim of the research is to extend and complicate Hans Belting's analysis of 'likeness and presence' in medieval icon art into a new understanding of Renaissance mimesis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-281
Number of pages27
JournalArt History
Issue number2
Early online date23 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 23 Mar 2016

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • art and technology
  • renaissance
  • mirror
  • mimesis


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