Curators discover rare Chinese ‘magic mirror’, one of only three known in the West, deep in storage at Cincinnati Museum of Art

Curators at the Cincinnati Art Museum have discovered that an unassuming bronze disk in the museum’s 100,000-piece collection is actually an extremely rare magic mirror.

Magic mirrors, also known as transparent or light-penetrating mirrors, were first created in China during the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), according to the museum. “When the light is projected on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal figures or a decorative design.”

The characters on the museum’s polished, reflective surface bear six characters (南無阿彌陀佛) that name Amitābha Buddha, while the reflection reveals an image of the Buddha shrouded in celestial rays.

Buddhist Bronze Mirror (recto), 15th-16th century, China or Japan, bronze, Source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photography: Rob Deslongchamps.

The discovery, made by Hou-mei Sung, curator of East Asian art, in the spring of 2021, will be displayed to the public in the museum’s East Asian wing from July 23, marking its first return in galleries since 2017, according to CNN. Officially acquired by the museum in 1961, the blind mirror has spent most of its tenure in storage.

“It’s really fate or luck,” Sung told Artnet News. “We were going to exhibit the bronze artwork in a museum gallery. Out of curiosity, I wanted to test it.

Knowledge of another magic mirror at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired Sung to bring a conservation expert to the museum’s storerooms and shed light on Cincinnati’s own suspect. The textured light in the reflection encouraged them to try a stronger, more focused beam.

Presto, there was the Buddha.

Buddhist Bronze Mirror (verso), 15th-16th century, China or Japan, bronze, Source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photography: Rob Deslongchamps.

Aside from the Han Dynasty-era magic mirrors on display at the Shanghai Museum, only two other similar Buddhist magic mirrors are known to exist, according to the museum. One is in the Tokyo National Museum and the other is in the Met. Both are Japanese objects from the Edo period (1603–1867).

According to the Cincinnati Art Museum, early research suggests her mirror was made in China and may be older than the two Japanese mirrors.

The mirrors were so complicated to make that researchers still don’t know exactly how the craftsmen made it. But Sung calls the discovery a good omen.

“He’s meant to be a blessing, so we feel very lucky to have him,” she said.

Bronze Buddhist Mirror Demonstration, 15th-16th century, China or Japan, bronze, Source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photography: Rob Deslongchamps.

“A lot of what curators do is research,” she said. “With a huge collection of over 10,000 works, it keeps us very busy.”

This latest development only whets his palate for more miracles. For now, she says, she hopes to take advantage of international expertise to advance the museum’s research.

“I know Asian art scholars will be traveling to Cincinnati to see it, and I’m thrilled they can learn more about our collection while they’re here,” she said.

Beyond that, she said she hopes the new attraction will “encourage visitors to learn more about our many rare works of Asian art in our collection.”

Thanks to a donation from the Rosenthal Family Foundation, guests will enjoy free general admission and parking during their chance to peek into Ohio’s Magic Mirror.

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