A rare centuries-old bronze mirror, which had been nearly forgotten in the Cincinnati Art Museum‘s East Asian art collection for more than 50 years, has revealed an illuminating secret: under certain conditions of lighting, the simple looking 16th century mirror reflects a diaphanous image of the Buddha surrounded by rays of light.
“Known as ‘magical’ or ‘transparent’ or ‘light-penetrating’ (透光鏡) mirrors, these types of artwork were first created in China during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE -220 CE),” explained the Cincinnati Museum of Art. . “When the light is projected on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal figures or a decorative design.” (Cincinnati Art Museum)
The curator of the Museum of East Asian Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, discovered the rare artifact while searching for an ancient work of art in the museum’s extensive collection. Dr Sung was exploring the museum’s storage rooms in the spring of 2021, accompanied by a conservation expert, when she took a closer look at the artifact.
“We all know that metal, light cannot penetrate it. That’s why they call it “magic”. said Dr. Sung. “This one is even more magical, you can see it’s a hidden image inside the mirror.” (BBC World Service)
At first glance, the front of the 21 centimeter bronze mirror appears to be an unremarkable polished reflective surface, while the reverse is marked with six characters: 南無阿彌陀佛, representing the exhortation “Praise to Amitabha Buddha”.
“There’s nothing on the surface, it’s just a polished reflective surface with some corrosion. It doesn’t give you any clues,” Dr. Sung said. (The arts journal)
“I asked [my companion] shine a strong, focused light on the mirror. So she used her cell phone [flashlight] and it worked!” Dr Sung recalled. “We were so excited!” (7News.com.au)
A graduate of National Taiwan University, Dr. Sung has served as curator of the Museum of East Asian Art since 2002. He holds a doctorate in museum studies from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, Dr. Sung has held various research and teaching positions in museums and academic fields in Asia and the United States.
Although the origin of the brass mirror may be China or Japan, and in the face of incomplete records, Dr. Sung endeavored to piece together the object’s history by referring to the few other examples that have been identified in other museums. Similar artifacts in Japan are inscribed with simplified Chinese characters, while the mirror in the Cincinnati Museum of Art bears traditional characters, which Dr. Sung says suggests it most likely originated in China.
“All the other examples are around 24 centimeters, so ours is slightly smaller,” Dr Sungadded said. “But the Buddha image that it projects, I think, is definitely more detailed and more refined.” (BBC World Service)
“Ancient magic mirrors are extremely difficult to make and are very rare,” observed the Cincinnati Art Museum. “Besides the Han Dynasty magic mirrors in the Shanghai Museum, only two other similar Buddhist magic mirrors are known: one in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [in New York City]. Both are Japanese mirrors made in the Edo period (1603–1867). Initial research on the Cincinnati Mirror suggests it is likely older than the other two examples and made in China. (Cincinnati Art Museum)
To create the seemingly mystical effect, scientists believe craftsmen would cast bronze plaques with images, words or designs on one side. They would then scratch and scrape the plain surface on the other side, before polishing it to a reflective shine. The embossed design has created variations in thickness in the curvature of the seemingly blank mirror side. Craftsmen would then use a mercury-based substance to etch additional surface stresses that traced the relief pattern on the back but were invisible to the naked eye.
“No matter what you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master who polishes the surface, which is extremely difficult. That’s why they’re so rare,” Dr. Sung said. “The Buddhist magic mirror was designed to offer hope and salvation, so I believe this discovery is an auspicious blessing for our museum and our city.” (CNN, South China Morning Post)
The Cincinnati Museum of Art put the “magic mirror” on public display beginning July 23 in the museum’s East Asian gallery, which includes artifacts from China, Japan and Korea.
The Cincinnati Art Museum rediscovers a national treasure stored for more than 50 years (Cincinnati Art Museum)
Curators discover rare Chinese ‘magic mirror’, one of only three known in the West, deep in storage at Cincinnati Museum of Art (artnet)
‘Magic’ Mirror Reveals at Cincinnati Art Museum, Surprising Staff (BBC World Service)
Secret, Hidden Buddha Image Revealed in Reflection of Centuries-Old ‘Magic Mirror’ (7News.com.au)
Previously undetected Buddha discovered in 16th-century ‘magic mirror’ after curator lit it (The arts journal)
A magnificent 16th-century Chinese ‘magic mirror’ has been discovered in a US art museum after being stored in a warehouse (South China Morning Post)
‘Magic Mirror’: Hidden Image Revealed By Reflection Of Centuries-Old Artifact (CNN)
“Magic Mirrors” (Unesco)
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