Sunday, 26 October 2014

Eye Glasses


A pair of French gilded scissor glasses in the Empire style c. 1805 


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I was surprised to discover that the earliest historical reference to magnification for the eyes dates back to 500 BC where Egyptian hieroglyphs depict a simple concave glass lens. The earliest written record of magnification was during the 1st century AD, when Seneca the Younger, a tutor to Emperor Nero of Rome, wrote: "Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water." Nero is apparently said to have watched gladiatorial games using an emerald as a corrective lens.
Has it ever crossed your mind how devastating it must have been in the past to cope with failing eyesight without any means of restoring it? For the common man and women no aids were available. Imagine being a skilled workman - jeweller, stonemason, carpenter, a needlewomen, or an artist relying on your eyesight to earn a living. We, on the other hand, can just pop into an Opticians on any high street and be examined for a pair of prescription glasses or even buy a pair of cheap everyday reading glasses straight over the counter. 
detail from a portrait of Hugh de Provence 1352

One of the panels from an altarpiece in Bad Wildungen Church, Germany showing an apostle using lenses to read - he is in the bottom panel on the left hand side.
Known as the "Glasses Apostle" and painted by Conrad von Soest in 1404. It is considered to be one of the oldest depictions of eyeglasses north of the Alps.
St. Peter reading - Friedrich Herlin - 1466
Seated apostle holding lenses in position whilst reading. Detail from Death of the Virgin by the Master of Heiligenkreuz 1400-30
Portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco circa 1600 - the glasses are hooked over the top and bottom of his ears
Portrait of Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas circa 1580 - 1645
Today it is possible to wear contact lenses and have laser corrective eye surgery. However, glasses tend to remain the norm for most people, particularly as technology has improved. Modern glasses can be a fashion statement by familiar names e.g. Calvin Klein and Gucci frames. Frames can be made from memory metal alloys that return to their correct shape after being bent, and most are now made of light weight materials such as titanium and high tech plastics.
all images via

53 comments:

  1. Amazing, Rosemary, I had no idea that reading glasses went back to Roman times, or even the fourteenth century. The paintings you show are so interesting. It has occurred to me that had I lived in earlier times, my life would have been very different, as I have been wearing spectacles since I was 40, and continue to need stronger lenses nearly every year. I am both long and short sighted. It is not only for reading, of course, and I depend on them a lot to sew. A fascinating post.

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    1. Dear Patricia - sometimes it amazes me when I see some of the very old people that live near me, who are in their 90s, and still driving around without wearing spectacles. I always hope that they really don't need to wear glasses!!!
      It would be lovely to be free of glasses, but I would never go under the laser, I would be terrified in case I was the one where it all went wrong.

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  2. What an interesting post Rosemary,
    Who would have ever thought of this. Its amazing.
    It brought to mind , that in some of the biblical films i have seen.. how many blind people walk around ..some begging, some just sitting. I suppose they didnt have money for glasses or had cataracts.!
    I like Patricia, have worn glasses since I was 40.. It was my Nina that pointed it out to me. Saying to me "mum, you need glasses", asking why, she replied " because you are holding the book too close to your eyes"..
    I think the images you have shown.. are amazing.. How did you arrive to this subject.!
    Its so intriguing. I want to know more.. Thank you Rosemary.. great post.

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    1. Thank you Val, I am pleased that you enjoyed reading this post. How did I arrive at this post? well! I don't really know Val, except that as I get older I do tend to be rather reflective. The world we live in today offers us all lots of challenges, and is a far smaller place than ever it was before re: the internet etc. Sometimes it is worthwhile just to recognise the many advantages that we have today. I know for example that if H had been struck down by the bacteria he had a few years earlier than he did then he would probably not be alive today because of the invention of the MRI scanner. Likewise my mother had breast cancer, but she actually died of the radium treatment she received because it was so unsophisticated. If she had been born a few years later than no doubt she would have lived for much longer. Hope this offer some sort of insight into my thinking as to how this post came about.

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  3. Nice post. It must have been a problem in the past when your eyes didn't work well. In that case we have made some great progressions as you mention to walk in a Opticians everywhere you like.

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    1. May be we tend to take so much that is available to us today for granted.

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  4. Thank goodness someone figured out how to put arms on those lorgnettes so we could hook them over our ears and not have to physically hold them in place while reading. What a pain!

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    1. Thank goodness for a pair of ears too Debra!

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  5. Hello Rosemary, We see that not only eyeglasses, but even designer frames go back centuries. In collecting Chinese antiques, one runs across many old spectacles and their elaborate cases. I have a few of these cases, but their odd shape suggests few alternate uses for them.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - it would be lovely to see your old Chinese spectacle cases sometime, may be you could show them on a post?

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  6. Fascinating, I wear contacts and at night my glasses. I'm far sighted which use to be an advantage when we were a hunting society, but now you need your eyes for close work and I'm definitely at a disadvantage.

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    1. I think most of us have plenty to be grateful for with much of modern technology, but perhaps not all of it.

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  7. It truly is an age of miracles we live in, isn't it? I wore glasses from age 9, and couldn't read a STOP sign from arms' length by 20. Contacts were a great blessing, and the LASIK surgery I had at age 30 was truly one of the wonders of the world. Thanks for reminding us of how much we take for granted. -Beth

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    1. Thank you Beth for your interesting comment - sometimes we should count our blessing.

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  8. Hello, Rosemary! This is an interesting topic. I’d be totally devastated without glasses in the dim light when the night was dark in the past. I’m happy to live in this modern time when thin and light lenses framed by a fashionable frame is available. One of my frames is light and flexible, made of the mixture of titanium and rubber.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - I have frameless glasses with a titanium arm and am grateful that they are weightless.

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  9. Fascinating stuff. My eyesight is going naturally with age and I hate it after many years of 20/20 vision I have to find my glasses to read small print it's a real pain.

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    1. I know exactly how you feel Suzie, but can imagine how awful it must have been to have deteriorating eyesight that you could do nothing about.

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  10. Perhaps the science progress was limited before the invention of spectacles to improve vision.The word optics is derived from the Greek term which refers to matters of vision. Anyway, thanks God, the eye testing technology is quite developed because after the age of 40... I also need glasses, I have a pair exactly like yours, very thin and weightless.( presbyopia, a Greek word also!)
    Happy new week!
    Olympia

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    1. Dear Olympia - we are so beholden to the Greeks, wherever would we be today without your great ancestors?

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  11. Dear Rosemary,

    Penicillin saved me at the age of five, so I know that in an earlier time I would not have survived past that age. And so I do consider your question and similar ones often. It's not just for the better plumbing that I enjoy this time! Your first photograph is quite a fashion statement!

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    1. Dear Mark - we really should thank our lucky stars that we were born at this period in the worlds history - better plumbing is something that I am grateful for too.

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  12. Yes I think about this often! Probably because my eyesight is so important to me whilst searching for antique treasures, reading and every other visual pursuit you can think of. When researching family history I found one several-times great grandmother whose deteriorating eyesight could be traced every 10 years: seamstress, dressmaker, quilt-maker, blind.

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    1. I suspect that must have been the case in most families Nilly, and it must have been devastating. When I mislay my glasses I feel totally helpless.

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  13. The first pair shown are exquisite. But the last two pictures look like a naughty boy has been drawing on them. I had no idea glasses were used so far back - fascinating.

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    1. The last two struck me as being rather cartoonish - I suspect that they must have been a bit of a novelty for the painters to portray.

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  14. I never thought about how lucky we are compared to our ancestors regarding glasses, I wouldn't have been able to write this comment without mine !

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  15. Fascinating - I learn from your posts all the time. Thank you.

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    1. Glad you found it of interest Susan

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  16. We are so lucky to have the technology to wear glasses. Never thought about people way in the past not being able to read due to their sight.

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    1. We live in an age when we have so much to assist us with our tasks.

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  17. The history of the eyeglass to aid magnification is fascinating. I have cause to be grateful for corrective spectacles and sad that my Italian/English sister-in-law is going blind and nothing can be done to save her sight. I help her read her letters from English friends and write replies for her too when with her. The miniatures of people with eyeglasses are a lot of fun as I've never seen those before. Looking up at the frescoes on high walls and ceilings is a challenge isn't it? Worth the effort of peering upwards though!

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    1. I am very sorry to learn about your sister-in-law especially that nothing can be done to help her in this modern era. I suspect it must have been like that for so many people in medieval times - you will have a strong sense of how it must have been for them.

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  18. Called by this am with a coffee for a lovely catch up of your always fascinating posts Rosemary, thankyou.

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    1. Thanks for visiting Linda and for your very kind comment - wish I had known then we could have shared a coffee together.

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    2. Maybe we will get the opportunity to do so one day!

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  19. In your first picture, the French scissor glasses are so fancy. I wonder if the people who wore them felt sophisticated, lucky, or embarrassed at having to use them. I imagine they were something only the upper classes could afford.

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    1. They date to around the period when General Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup and eventually became Emperor of France in 1804.

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  20. Dear Rosemary,
    thank you for this interesting in-sight! Good that there are glasses - but I am glad that I only needed them after finishing my examination, then still some time - and suddenly: not anymore (always only 1,2 dioptries).
    I love sungasses though - and always wonders why them, but not specs?
    In Munich an optician always presents collections of glasses - well, and then there is Dame Edna, and for a long time Elton John.

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    1. You are a lucky girl Britta - no glasses for you.

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  21. Hello Rosemary

    I am certainly glad to not have to wear glasses similar to the Cardinal you featured. We are very fortunate to have so many choices.

    Helenx

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    1. Hello Helen - they certainly don't do his appearance any favours, do they?

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  22. I always learn something new and very interesting every time Rosemary. Well, now I must have glasses, I dont like it...
    Have a happy week and take care!
    Warmly,
    Titti

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  23. We have certainly come a long way. My husband and I both wear reading glasses. He loses his regularly. I bought ones with pink flowers ...so he wouldn't carry them off....or claim they were his. He borrowed them to read a menu in a restaurant and gave the waitress a good chuckle....

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    1. I can just imagine how amusing the waitress found your husband wearing flowery glasses

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  24. I saw an exhibit of one of those 'golden hoards' that are dug up occasionally. Jewelry, armor--the engraving, tiny horses and Celtic knots, was so small, it was exhibited under a magnifying glass. It was done way before eye glasses or artificial light.--hart

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    1. Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall and see just how so much was achieved in our far distant past.

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  25. What an enlightening post, Rosemary. I've worn eyeglasses since I was six years old. Long time. :) I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like way back when - losing your eyesight and slowly being unable to earn a living. And of course it needn't have been illness, just old age was enough. But it's so interesting to note that scholars apparently had access to rudimentary 'eyeglasses' as far back as the 14th century.

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    1. We so many advantages over our ancestors which we sometimes forget to appreciate.

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  26. A fascinating post, Rosemary. With my poor sight I'm very grateful for modern technology. I still remember the sense of wonder I had as a child when I got my first pair of glasses and could finally see properly.

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