Magnificent 16th-century Chinese ‘magic mirror’ discovered in US art museum after being put in storage, China News

What was once thought to be an unremarkable, albeit ancient, Chinese mirror stored in a museum in the American Midwest turned out to be a spectacular artifact full of awe and mystery.

Dr. Sung Hou-mei, curator of East Asian art at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, was researching ancient artworks the Ohio museum had collected since 1961. She then turned his attention to a 16th century mirror whose most notable feature was the Chinese characters. on the back, which spelled out the name of Buddha Amitābha.

She decided to test a theory and asked the team to place a direct light in the center of the mirror, which had been in storage since 2017.

What he revealed was momentous: when the light was reflected from the mirror, it revealed an image of Amitābha Buddha surrounded by rays of light emanating from it.

“The Buddhist ‘magic mirror’ was designed to offer hope and salvation, so I think this discovery is an auspicious blessing for our museum and our city,” Sung said.

“I tested this mirror because through research I found another example of a Buddhist magic mirror,” she added.

Buddhist magic mirrors, also called “transparent” and “light penetrating” mirrors, were first made in China during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) and were also a notable artifact of the Edo period. in Japan (1603-1867).

Due to their difficulty in crafting, magic mirrors are extremely rare. The Shanghai Museum has mirrors from the Han dynasty, but only two other magic mirrors with Buddhist images are known to exist, both from Japan, one being on display at the Tokyo National Museum and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Tokyo. New York. .

According to an article on the Unesco Digital Library, the mirrors are made of bronze, with designs engraved on the back panel. The reflective face is crucially convex in shape and polished to become reflective.

When the mirror is held to illuminate from the correct angle, the bronze reflects light to reveal the secret image, a Buddha in the case of the Cincinnati Art Museum relic.

According to the Unesco article, the mirror is crafted with painstaking but deliberate imperfections achieved through an elaborate scraping and scratching technique. The mirror is then polished and coated with a mercury-based liquid or paste to accentuate the “magical” design.

These deliberate imperfections allow light to reflect in specific places, creating shape.

“They are very rare because they are difficult to manufacture,” Sung said. “Polishing the curvature of the mirror surface to achieve the ‘magical’ effect is extremely difficult.”


Interestingly, the Chinese characters on the back of the Cincinnati Mirror spelling out Amitābha Buddha’s name may have been a clue that this mirror was far more important than initially thought.

Sung said the mirror was likely used for religious purposes and is associated with the Amida faith of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, which originated in Japan and remains the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in the country. This faith emphasizes the teachings of Amitābha Buddha, in accord with the mirror honoring the former monk.

After being put away in a warehouse, the mirror was put on display at the Cincinnati Museum of Art on July 23, and Sung said the reaction to the news was “Great excitement!”.

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

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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