93. Mirror of the Soul

Iran, 12th–13th century, inscriptions 14th century
Size: 12.3 cm diameter
Cast brass, engraved

It would be difficult to find a more totemic talisman from the Islamic world, or a more potent one should you believe in such things. This form of mirror derives ultimately from China and became familiar in Iran during the Seljuk era in the 12th century. At the same time the mirror became a symbol in the mystical literature of Iran – and almost all the literature was mystical – of the soul, or more precisely that part of the human being that could be polished by certain spiritual practices to the point that it could reflect a higher reality, and make it understandable. The polished surface of the mirror in this case has been engraved with an elaborate magical square of 225 compartments into which the Surat al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, has been ingeniously fitted, so that the interface between the human soul and the Divine Reality is made possible by the correspondence expressed in this way. The existence of such a talisman assumes that it operates whether its function is recognised or not, attracting, accumulating and distributing Baraka, that mysterious substance that features in Christianity as Grace.

I was hired by Christie’s in 1967 as their expert in Russian art. I knew nothing about the subject, it happened by mistake, and when I started working there on the front counter I knew it was only a question of time before they discovered I was a fraud. For the first few days I was taken around, shown the different departments and introduced to their personnel, and in the course of this peregrination we walked through the basement of King Street where each department stored its works of art in separate cages. There in a corner of the corridor I spotted a pile of Islamic art, and stopping to have a closer look was told it had been there for years because nobody knew how to catalogue it. As I examined the pieces and realised that many were published in major publications, I announced that I could catalogue the pile, and was shortly afterwards told to do so. It was the collection of T.L. Jacks who had been the BP representative in Iran for 25 years. The sale three months later was a big success, museum curators came from all over the place, and my role as Russian expert was soon conveniently forgotten. My favourite piece in the sale was this mirror, bought by John Drage for ten times my estimate, against the most powerful Iranian art dealer of the time. When he died his widow brought it to me, knowing the history and the significance that we both attributed to it. There is another example in the Louvre with an identical configuration of the magical square, but not as fine.

Provenance: T.L. Jacks, sold Christie’s, London,1968. John Drage

Published: The Unity of Islamic Art, ed. Esin Atil, Riyadh, 1985, no. 83.

Sabiha Al-Khemir, Beauty and Belief, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2012, pp. 86–88, 210, 249.