Another creative innovation of the Isfahani artists was framing the images of Farangi women with delicate mirror mosaics to further elicit praise and admiration. The love of Iranians for mirrors, both whole and fragmented, goes beyond its practical uses, extending metaphorically to invoke light, human sight, and wisdom, which may be found in Sufi literature. It is therefore no wonder that, a few decades after the invention of the glass mirror in the 16th century, this item found its way to Iran, and was put to novel uses.
The use of mirrors in Persian architecture goes back to the 16th century. Due to the rarity of mirror glass and its cost, for many centuries its use was confined to royal palaces. In nearly all Safavid palaces, including that of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524—1576) in Qazvin, a mirror room (talar-e aayneh) seemed indispensable. Due to the abundance of mirrors in the 19th century, shrines33 and the houses of nearly all welloff people, in addition to royal palaces, had a room or part of a room decorated with mirror work.
In the early mirror rooms, large mirrors were simply installed on the walls, but and by the 17th century, mirrors located in mirror rooms were treated in a variety of ways. Plaster stucco was first worked decoratively on the surface of the mirror, or paint was applied. By the 19th century, with the availability of thin mirrors, mirror mosaic (the same technique as raised-tile mosaic) was used.
The majority of the houses of Isfahani dignitaries of the 19th century have a mirror room. But their mirror rooms are different from those of the royal palaces of the Qajar and Pahlavi kings in Tehran. The Isfahani mirror rooms are enriched with stucco, paintings, and prints. These are also found in Kashan, in the grand houses still standing today. The carved stucco creates a low-relief composition of stylized flowers, plants, vases, and birds, among which are embedded mirrorwork panels, and of course European prints. The effect is stunning. The working drawings (preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) in the Mirza Akbar archive show us how the stucco-workers created their elaborate designs, leaving deliberate spaces for another skilled craftsman to add his work to the composition.
In these 19th-century Isfahani houses the mirror is used to frame the prints or to create a glittering atmosphere for them. The framing of the prints is not all the same; all are symmetrical, but they are in various shapes, including columns and capitals (plate 40) and all kinds of niches (mihrab) (plate 40a). In some cases, the pictures are framed with eight-pointed stars set in diamond shapes (40b and 40c), adding further sparkle to their periphery.
The most extravagant part of a dignitary's house was the reception hall (talar-e pazira'i). Here, the best members of all construction guilds, including painters, stucco-workers, woodworkers, and mirror-makers, were employed to demonstrate their abilities, with an astonishing range of techniques shown side by side, from floor to ceiling. The best section of the room - usually the northern section, a niche or an area - was even more elaborate. It was called shah-neshin (seat of the shah) and was distinguished by a silk rug or silk embroidery that was spread for the dignitary's most favored guest to sit on. A small rug intended for that purpose was called a masnad.