Rare Chinese ‘magic mirror’ found in museum

Curators have discovered a rare Chinese “magic mirror” in storage at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

A rare Chinese “magic mirror” was discovered by preservatives stored at the Cincinnati Museum of Art.

A case of mistaken identity

What was initially thought to be an unassuming bronze disc is actually an extremely rare “magic mirror”. The mirror was found among the East Asian Art Collection which contains 100,000 works.

Magic mirrors, otherwise known as transparent or penetrating mirrorswere first produced in China during the The Han dynasty approximately 2,000 years ago (202 BCE – 220 CE), before being made in Japan later in the 19th century. According to the museum:

When light is cast on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal figures or a decorative pattern.

Hou-mei Sung, curator of East Asian art, said Artnet News:

It really is fate or luck. We were going to exhibit the work in bronze in a gallery of the museum. Out of curiosity, I wanted to test.

Sung shone a light on the surface of the mirror and reflected on the wall in front of her the image of a Buddha ‘Enveloped in celestial rays.’ The back of the mirror has six Chinese characters (南無阿彌陀佛) which reveals the name of the represented Buddha—amitabha.

The mirror was officially registered by the museum in 1961 and has spent much of the past decades in storage. The mirror was first identified by Sung in 2021 and will now be displayed for the first time since 2017 from July 23.

Only two other similar magic mirrors

There is currently only two other similar Buddhist magic mirrors known to exist, which belong to museums. One is at Tokyo National Museum and the other is Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both were created in Japan during the Edo period (1603–1867).

By comparison, initial research from the Cincinnati Art Museum indicates that his mirror was created in Chinaand that it can be older than the two Japanese mirrors. Although it is now widely understood how mirrors work optically, experts I don’t know exactly how the craftsmen worked the metal.

Sung said, as reported by CNN:

No matter what you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master who polishes the surface, which is extremely difficult. This is why they are so rare.

She added:

It’s meant to be a blessing, so we feel very lucky to have it.

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