Long before the first disco ball glittered on the dance floor, Persian artisans were masterfully piecing together complex geometries in mirror, called aineh-kari. A sight to behold, these facades, walls, entryways, and entire rooms of palaces and mosques, encrusted in geometrically cut mirror, harness the light-reflective quality of the mirror to create breathtaking spaces that seem to emanate light and brightness.
The art form originated during the 16th-century Safavid Era, in the Persian Empire (what is now Iran). Mirrors, which at the time had silver backing (rather than the modern mercury and tin), were expensive, imported from Europe, and would sometimes break in transit. In an effort to avoid wasting this precious material, Persian artisans began creating complex mirror mosaics that could make use of even the smallest shard.
Let’s look at the basic technique and then take a gander at a number of stunning examples.
The Basic Technique
Mirror mosaics are still made today, and the basic technique remains the same as it was hundreds of years ago, very much similar to other forms of mosaics.
STEP 1: Draw the design.
STEP 2: Perforate the drawn design and spray. The perforated paper design is held up to the area where the mosaic will be applied, and color is sprayed, which goes through the perforations to create the basic design on the wall.
STEP 3: Cut the mirror pieces according to the design.
STEP 4: Adhere the mirror pieces to the design on the wall using a mixture of plaster and wood glue.
The screenshots above are taken from this short, informative video by Press TV:
Interestingly, in the video, mirror mosaic artisan Siavash Zarrat notes that up until 1987, essentially only square and triangular pieces of mirror were used to create traditional geometric designs. After 1987, artisans added a modern twist to the ancient art form by introducing curved cuts, enabling them to replicate calligraphy and other designs in mirror.
No image available, no matter how high the resolution, can capture the awe-inspiring feeling of stepping into one of these spaces embellished with exquisite mirror mosaics. Particularly in the examples that employ small individual pieces of mirror, the effect is one of pure light, opulence, and grandeur. Even though the material is mirror, because the pieces are so small, you don’t see a reflection of yourself, just the glow and glitter of light.
Fatima Masoumeh Shrine in Qom
Though this shrine has taken many incarnations dating back to when Hazrat-e Fatima Masoumeh passed away in roughly 816 A.D., the most significant developments were begun in the 16th century. The room that holds the actual shrine is entirely encrusted in elaborate mirror mosaics, but photography is prohibited. Below we see the main iwan (entryway) as well as some detail shots from outside. I took these pics and couldn’t believe the cameo from the white bird in the first shot.
Shah Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz
Shah Cheragh literally translates to “King of Light” in Farsi, a fitting name for such an illuminated structure. Much like the Fatima Masoumeh Shrine mentioned above, this mosque has also taken various forms, dating back to the 12th century. The most significant developments were again made in the 16th century. The first two pics below, by David Holt, show the inside of the dome, looking like a giant geode, and one of the main rooms. The rest of the shots show further detail, as well as how the inside of the dome looks with colored lights cast.
Golestan Palace in Tehran
One of the oldest historic buildings in the capital city of Tehran, the Golestan Palace dates back to the 16th century and features two particularly glittering halls: the Hall of Diamonds (Talar-e-Almas, pictured in the first two shots below) and the Hall of Mirrors (Talar-e-Aineh).
Mirror Inlay with Plaster or Wood
Ancient Persian artisans are well-known for their intricate plaster carvings, dating back to roughly the Sassanian Era beginning in 224 A.D. Naturally, when mirror mosaics began as an art form in the 16th century, the combining of these two media was not far behind. The first two shots below are from the Golestan Palace and the rest are from the Water Museum in Yazd. Below those are two shots showing wood and mirror inlay from Chehel Sotoun in Isfahan.
Modern Twist: Monir
No modern discussion of aineh-kari wold be complete without mention of Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Now in her 90s, Monir (as she’s commonly known) presents a fresh take on traditional geometric mirror mosaics and had her first comprehensive show in the U.S. at the Guggenheim last year.
She first became interested in Persian mirror mosaics over 40 years ago on a trip to Shiraz when she visited the Shah Cheragh Mosque. From her memoirs, she recounts, “The very space seemed on fire, the lamps blazing in hundreds of thousands of reflection … It was a universe unto itself, architecture transformed into performance, all movement and fluid light, all solids fractured and dissolved in brilliance, in space, in prayer. I was overwhelmed.” Below are a few examples of her works, with the first image showing her working in the 70s.