Mirrors from Laconia

(Last Updated On November 15, 2023)

Images or figures of young girls are not common in ancient Greek art. As the ancient Greeks saw things, adults were more important than children, and males were more important than females, and so adults, and especially males are more prevalent in Greek art of antiquity than are girls. Two exceptions to the rule are grave steles and the bronze mirrors made in Laconia in the 6th century BC. Mirrors were considered to be a typically female belonging, and are the origin of the female symbol ♀ .

Anonymous – Bronze Mirror (c 550 BC – 500 BC)

Laconia is a region in the southern part of the Peloponnese Peninsula. Sparta is the most famous city in Laconia. According to Agnes Bencze of the Department of Art History and Péter Pázmány of Catholic University in Budapest, small scale bronze working was an outstanding facet of ancient Laconian art. Bronze mirrors with handles in the shape of nude girls, often called caryatid mirrors, are characteristic of Laconia in the sixth century BC.

Anonymous – Bronze Mirror, back (c 550 BC – 500 BC)

The term caryatid is derived from the Laconian city Caryae. Pillars in the Temple of Artemis in Caryae are in the shape of women. It is believed that the figurines of girls that form the handles of carytid mirrors represent the nymphs that are the attendants of the goddess Artemis. The Temple of Artemis Orthia was one of the most important religious sanctuaries in ancient Sparta. The “Procession of the Girls” was one of the most ancient and revered ceremonies held at the Temple of Artemis Orthia. When pagan worship was suppressed in the fourth century AD, details of what occurred during the Procession of the Girls was lost.

The first mirror shown here is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The girl is standing on a lion, and two griffins on her shoulders help support the mirror. The mirror is the disc above the girl’s head, which when new was highly polished bronze. In her left hand the girl holds something which might be a pair of cymbals.

In the next bronze figure, which is also from the Metropolitan Museum, the girl appears to be playing a pair of cymbals. Perhaps cymbals were used during the Procession of the Girls. The actual mirror and the animals or birds on the girl’s shoulders have been broken off and lost, but fortunately we still have the figurine of the girl. Unlike the other mirrors in which the girl stands on a lion, this figure is standing on a frog. Whatever may have been the reason for the lion or frog, the cymbals, and other features has been forgotten.

Anonymous – Bronze Mirror Support (c 540 BC – 530 BC)

Paul Cartledge used an image of the last mirror as the cover illustration for his book Spartan Reflections. This mirror was found at the Laconian town of Hermione. It is similar to the first, but instead of griffins on the girl’s shoulders, there are birds with human heads on the girl’s hair. She seems to have been holding something, now lost, in her left hand.

Anonymous – Bronze Mirror from Hermione (Sixth Century BC)

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