Hiding in plain sight – in the storage of Cincinnati Art Museum’s East Asian art collection, a seemingly unremarkable bronze mirror from the 15th and 16th century China. Part of a vast collection of hundreds of thousands of other artifacts with it, it turns out that this is an extremely rare magic mirror, with the image of the Buddha shrouded in mystical beams, reports CNN.
Magic Mirrors and Lighting: Japan and China
The Buddha is seated in his quintessential meditative pose, while rays of light emanate from him. There are also six characters on the reverse surface ‘南無阿彌陀佛’, which are a reference to Amitabha Buddha, an important figure of East Asian Buddhism.
Last displayed in 2017, the magic mirror had previously been sitting in storage for decades on a backroom shelf. A magic mirror is an ancient Chinese art form dated to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). They are transparent or light penetrating mirrors, and according to the museum, “… when light is projected on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal characters or a decorative design.”
The museum’s curator of East Asian art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, is responsible for bringing this beautiful historical artifact to light. She saw an uncanny resemblance to mirrors from Japan’s Edo-period, although it was smaller than ones held in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai, and New York City, and had a more complex Chinese script style, reports Artnet News .
Hou-mei Sung, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s curator of East Asian art, next to the Buddhist Bronze Mirror. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Art Museum )
This prompted her to visit the museum’s storage last spring and see the mirror, which has been part of the museum’s collection for over 50 years. A conservation expert accompanied her to do the due diligence. “I asked her to shine a strong, focused light on the mirror,” Dr. Sung said on a video call from Cincinnati to CNN. “So, she used her cell phone (flashlight) and it worked.” The mirror was later taken to have experiments performed on it using powerful and focused lights, which would reveal the Buddha’s image.
According to Dr. Sung, Cincinnati Art Museum is now part of a small handful of institutions in the world in possession of this type of magic mirror. There are only two others in possession of rare Buddhist themed ones, including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tokyo National Museum. They both, however, are Japanese Edo-period ones and potentially not as old as the newly discovered Chinese counterpart.
“This is a national treasure for China, and we are so lucky to have rediscovered this rare object and have it on view in Cincinnati,” said Sung.
“I know that Asian art scholars will travel to Cincinnati to see it and I’m excited they can learn more about our collection while they are here,” she said. She hopes that this current find “inspires visitors to learn more about our many rare works of Asian art in our collection.”
The mirror, shown here, (left reverse side, right obverse side with six Chinese characters) which dates back to the 15th or 16th century, would likely have hung in a temple or noble household. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Art Museum )
The Art of Reflective Mirror Making
The art of reflective bronze making is not restricted to just China, although they are one of the first cultures to perfect it. They have been found from ancient Egypt to the Indus Valley. Japan would also later develop and enhance this technique during the Edo period (1603-1868). The mysterious reflective technique was created by casting images, words, and patterns onto one side. Then the plain surface on the other side is scratched and scraped and then polished to become a ‘regular’ mirror.
“However, when the mirror is held in bright sunshine, its reflecting surface can be “seen through”, making it possible to inspect from a reflection cast onto a dark wall the written characters or patterns on the back. Somehow, mysteriously, the solid bronze becomes transparent, leading to the Chinese name for the objects, ‘light-penetration mirrors’,” according to a UNESCO article.
When the sunlight would hit the reflective surface in a certain way, the hidden image would usually match the design on the back. This would create the optical illusion that light passed right through the mirror. In the case of the current discovery, a second metal plate was added onto the back, allowing the original Buddha to be concealed inside. All in all, the mirror measures 8.5 inches (22 cm) in diameter and was probably used as a religious ornament in a temple or elite house.
The reflected Buddha is discernible in this detail of the reflection. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Art Museum )
“No matter how much you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master who polishes the surface which is tremendously difficult. That’s why they are so rare,” explained Dr. Sung, who confesses that experts still don’t understand how the metal was worked by craftspeople. The most exciting part? She believes that many museums have such mirrors tucked in their recesses somewhere but aren’t aware of it yet, opening up the possibility of a lot of historical research on this topic.
Top image: Demonstration of Buddhist Bronze Mirror reflecting its image at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Art Museum
By Sahir Pandey