Curators discover a rare Chinese “magic mirror” – one of only three known in the West – in the depths of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s storage

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

Magic mirrors, also known as transparent or light-penetrating mirrors, were first made in China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), according to the museum. “When light is projected onto them, the mirrors appear transparent, revealing characters or a decorative design.”

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

Buddhist bronze mirror (front), 15th–16th Century, China or Japan, Bronze, source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo: Rob Deslongchamps.

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

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

Knowledge of another magic mirror in the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired Sung to bring a conservation expert to the museum’s warehouse and solve Cincinnati’s own suspect. Textured light in the reflection encouraged her to try a stronger, more focused beam.

Presto, there was the Buddha.

Buddhist bronze mirror (rear), 15th–16th Century, China or Japan, Bronze, source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo: Rob Deslongchamps.

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

According to the Cincinnati Art Museum, initial research suggests his mirror was made in China and may predate the two Japanese mirrors.

Making the mirrors was so complicated that scholars still don’t know exactly how the craftsmen managed it. But Sung calls the discovery promising.

“It’s meant to be a blessing, so we feel very fortunate to have it,” she said.

Demonstration of a Buddhist bronze mirror, 15th–16th centuries Century, China or Japan, Bronze, source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo: Rob Deslongchamps.

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

This latest development only whets your taste buds for more wonders. For now, she said, she hopes to use the international expertise to advance the museum’s research.

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

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

Thanks to a gift from the Rosenthal Family Foundation, guests enjoy free admission and parking while glimpsing Ohio’s magic mirror.

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