Willem van Swanenburg, after Jan Cornelis Woudanus, Vera Anatomiae Lugduno-Batavae. Dutch, 1610. © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Much anatomical innovation in this period took place in Italy and the Netherlands. This early seventeenth-century engraving depicts the anatomy theatre at the University of Leiden, and reveals the extent to which anatomical dissection in this period was understood simultaneously against two frames: the empirical or proto-scientific, and the moral and religious. The Latin title reads: ‘A true sketch of the anatomy theatre at Leiden with the skeletons and remains which are preserved there’. The image is a curious assemblage of figures of the living and the dead. Indeed, the skeletons appear surprisingly lively – almost as animated as the human observers.

Around the central scene of dissection, there are many richly dressed lookers-on. Among them, a woman, centre foreground, holds a mirror - less a traditional symbol of worldly vanities than an inscription of the self-knowledge that can be gained through anatomy. This is counterpointed by a more traditional visual reminder of the moral dangers of immoderate curiosity: see the tableau in the centre foreground, with two skeletons on either side of the tree of knowledge, complete with a serpent coiled around the tree and an apple – the fruit of knowledge – held out by the skeleton on the right. Might the anatomist, prying into the secrets of the human body, be repeating their original sin? Several of the skeletons hold banners with familiar memento mori messages, such as ‘death is the final limit of all things’ and ‘we are dust and shadows’, reminding viewers the worthlessness of human existence compared to the spiritual and divine realms. The discovery of the inside of the body, for all the exhilaration of new knowledge, or perhaps because of it, must remain inseparable from the knowledge of mortality.

Anon., Mirror. Venice, 1575-1600. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This is a beautiful Venetian mirror from the late sixteenth century, inlaid with mother of pearl, in a Turkish-influenced style. Mirrors were not only household objects in the Renaissance – whether a personal (and often gendered) accessory in an intimate space such as the bedroom, or an ornamental item in a function room – but also a freighted metaphor or symbol. No wonder that they appear abundantly in allegorical paintings of the time. Perhaps the commonest association they carried in Renaissance art was that of vanitas – as in Titian’s famous painting, Woman at her Toilet (c. 1515), or The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’) by Diego Velázquez (1644). But the associations could go both ways. As the exhibited mirror from the V&A shows, they were often luxury-items, making them eloquent symbols of the futility of worldly pleasure and the transience of life, as much as they could inscribe wealth, beauty and desire. Similarly, a mirror could suggest disclosure, an encounter with the truth, or self-knowledge, but equally, it could evoke vanity, self-love, and reflective distortion. It could point to deeper, normally invisible, realities, or the limits of human perception and knowledge. The context of representation often determined the meaning. But in this period, new technologies were also making the looking glass a versatile thing – aesthetic object as well as optical instrument or scientific device.