Rare Chinese “Magic Mirror” Projecting Hidden Buddha Image Rediscovered After Decades in Museum Storage –

Credit: Rob Deslongchamps / Cincinnati Museum of Art

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what is the rarest work of art of all?

Under special lighting conditions, a simple looking 16th century bronze mirror housed in the Cincinnati Museum of Art reflects the image of a Buddha surrounded by many rays of light emanating from it.

This “magic” mirror will be on display from July 23, 2022, for the world to finally see.

It was in the spring of 2021, while conducting research on an ancient work of art from the museum’s collection, that the curator of East Asian art, Dr Hou-mei Sung, makes a unique discovery.

Before glass was made, people groomed themselves in polished bronze mirrors. This technology has been found everywhere, from ancient Egypt to the Indus Valley.

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Known as “magic” or “transparent” or “light-penetrating” (透光鏡) mirrors, these types of artworks were first created in China during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE). era – 220 CE). When light is cast on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal figures or a decorative pattern.

“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.

Indeed, before being put on display once in 2017, the mirror had sat in the East Asian collection untouched for decades, according to CNN.

The front of the museum mirror is a polished reflective surface, and the back is marked with six characters, 南無阿彌陀佛, the name of Amitābha Buddha.

Credit: Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Museum of Art

Ancient magic mirrors are extremely difficult to craft and are very rare. Besides the Han dynasty magic mirrors in the Shanghai Museum, only two other similar Buddhist magic mirrors are known: one in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both are Japanese mirrors made in the Edo period (1603–1867). Sung believes the one in Cincinnati was made at an earlier time in China.

Although the nature of their function is widely understood, how ancient metallurgists achieved the penetrating effect of light is not known. To create the effect, metalworkers carved images or words into one side of a bronze plate. On the opposite side it has been polished to the mirror look, and possibly even mercury treated.

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The trick was to make the carvings on one side indent slightly into the side of the mirror so that when hit by sunlight, they appeared on the wall behind. However, the carvings were so delicate and shallow that they did not disturb the mirror-like surface, so people could still use it as a mirror.

Visitors can see Secrets of the Mirror for free in the museum’s East Asia Gallery (Gallery 140) after July 23.

The museum acquired its first works of East Asian art in 1881, making it one of the oldest museum collections of East Asian art in the United States.

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