Magic mirror with hidden image found in Cincinnati museum

Hidden in plain sight – in the stash of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s East Asian art collection, a seemingly unremarkable bronze mirror from 15th and 16th century China. Part of a vast collection of hundreds of thousands of other artifacts, it turns out to be an extremely rare magic mirror, with the image of the Buddha shrouded in mystical rays, reports CNN.

Magic mirrors and lighting: Japan and China

The Buddha sits in his quintessential meditative pose, while rays of light emanate from him. There are also six characters on the reverse side ‘南無阿彌陀佛’, which refer to Amitabha Buddha, an important figure in East Asian Buddhism.

Last shown in 2017, the magic mirror had previously been stored on a shelf in the back room for decades. A magic mirror is an ancient Chinese art form dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). They are transparent or light-penetrating mirrors, and according to the museum, “…when light is shone on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal figures or decorative design”.

The curator of the Museum of East Asian Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, is in charge of bringing this magnificent historical artifact to light. She saw an uncanny resemblance to mirrors from the Edo period in Japan, although they are smaller than those housed in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai and New York, and have a more complex style of Chinese writing. , reports Artnet News .

Hou-mei Sung, curator of East Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, next to the Buddhist bronze mirror. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Museum of Art )

This prompted her to visit the museum’s storerooms last spring and see the mirror, which has been in the museum’s collection for more than 50 years. A conservation expert accompanied her to do the due diligence. “I asked him to shine a strong, focused light on the mirror,” Dr. Sung said in a video call from Cincinnati to CNN. “So she used her cell phone (flashlight) and it worked.” The mirror was then taken to have experiments performed using strong, focused lights, which would reveal the image of the Buddha.

According to Dr. Sung, the Cincinnati Art Museum is now one of a small handful of institutions in the world in possession of this type of magic mirror. There are only two others with rare Buddhist-themed items, including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tokyo National Museum. However, they are both Japanese from the Edo period and potentially not as old as the recently discovered Chinese counterpart.

“It’s a national treasure for China, and we’re so lucky to have rediscovered this rare item and put it on display in Cincinnati,” Sung said.

“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. She hopes this current discovery will “inspire visitors to learn more about our many rare works of Asian art in our collection.”

    The mirror, shown here, (left reverse, right reverse with six Chinese characters) which dates back to the 15th or 16th century, would probably have hung in a temple or noble house.  (Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum)

The mirror, shown here, (left reverse, right reverse with six Chinese characters) which dates back to the 15th or 16th century, would probably have hung in a temple or noble house. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Museum of Art )

The art of making reflective mirrors

The art of reflective bronze making is not limited to 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 improve this technique during the Edo period (1603-1868). The mysterious reflection technique was created by throwing images, words and patterns onto one side. Then the plain surface on the other side is scratched and scraped and then polished to a “normal” mirror.

“However, when the mirror is held in direct sunlight, its reflective surface can be ‘seen through’, allowing inspection from a reflection cast on a dark wall of the characters or designs written on the back. somehow, mysteriously, the solid bronze becomes transparent, hence the objects’ Chinese name, ‘light-penetrating mirrors’,” according to a UNESCO article.

When sunlight hit the reflective surface in a certain way, the hidden image usually matched the pattern on the back. This would create the optical illusion of light passing through the mirror. In the case of the current find, a second metal plate has been added to the back, allowing the original Buddha to be concealed inside. In total, the mirror measures 8.5 inches (22 cm) in diameter and was probably used as a religious ornament in a temple or elite household.

The reflected Buddha is discernible in this detail of the reflection.  (Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum)

The reflected Buddha is discernible in this detail of the reflection. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Museum of Art )

“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 are so rare,” explained Dr. Sung, who confesses that experts still do not understand. how the metal She thinks that many museums have such mirrors hidden somewhere in their recesses but are not yet aware of them, which opens the possibility of much historical research on this subject.

Top image: Demonstration of a bronze Buddhist mirror reflecting his image at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Source: Rob Deslongchamps/ Cincinnati Museum of Art

By Sahir Pandey

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