Magic mirror with hidden image discovered in Cincinnati Museum

Hidden in plain sight in the depot of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s East Asian Art Collection, a seemingly inconspicuous bronze mirror from 15th and 16th century China. As part of a huge collection of hundreds of thousands of other artifacts, this turns out to be an extremely rare magic mirror with the image of the Buddha shrouded in mystical rays reported CNN.

Magic Mirrors and Lighting: Japan and China

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

The magic mirror, which was last exhibited in 2017, had previously stood on a shelf in the back room for decades. A magic mirror is an ancient Chinese art form from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). They are transparent or light-penetrating mirrors, and according to the museum “…when light is projected onto them, the mirrors appear transparent and display characters or a decorative design.”

The curator of the Museum of East Asian Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, is responsible for bringing this beautiful historical artifact to light. She saw an uncanny resemblance to mirrors from Japan’s Edo period, though they were smaller than those in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai and New York City and had a more complex style of Chinese writing, reports reported Artnet News .

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

This prompted her to visit the museum’s depot last spring and see the mirror, which has been part of the museum’s collection for over 50 years. A nature conservation expert accompanied them during the due diligence. “I asked them to shine a strong, focused light on the mirror,” said Dr. Sung on a video call from Cincinnati CNN. “So she used her cell phone (flashlight) and it worked.” The mirror was later taken to conduct experiments with powerful and focused lights that would reveal the image of the Buddha.

according to dr Sung, the Cincinnati Art Museum is now one of a small handful of institutions around the world to own this type of magic mirror. There are only two other holdings of rare Buddhist motifs, including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tokyo National Museum. However, they are both from the Edo period in Japan and may not be as old as the newly discovered Chinese counterpart.

“This is a national treasure for China, and we are so fortunate to have rediscovered this rare object and exhibited it in Cincinnati,” said Sung.

“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. She hopes this recent find will “inspire visitors to learn more about our many rare pieces of Asian art in our collection.”

    The mirror shown here (back left, front right with six Chinese characters) from the 15th or 16th century must have hung in a temple or noble house.  (Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Museum of Art)

The mirror shown here (back left, front right with six Chinese characters) from the 15th or 16th century must have hung in a temple or noble house. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Art Museum of Cincinnati )

The art of reflective mirror making

The art of reflective bronze making is not unique 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 also later developed and improved this technique during the Edo period (1603-1868). The mysterious reflection technique was created by pouring images, words and patterns onto a page. Then the smooth surface on the other side is scratched and scraped and then polished to get a “normal” mirror.

“However, when the mirror is held in bright sunlight, its reflective surface can be ‘see through’, making it possible, through a reflection cast on a dark wall, to inspect the written characters or patterns on the back. Somehow, the solid bronze mysteriously becomes transparent, leading to the Chinese name for the objects, ‘light penetrating mirror’,” according to a UNESCO Article.

When sunlight hits the reflective surface in a specific way, the hidden image usually matches the design on the back. This would create the optical illusion that light went straight through the mirror. In the case of the current discovery, a second metal plate was attached to the back, allowing the original Buddha to be hidden inside. Overall, the mirror measures 22 cm in diameter and was probably used as a religious ornament in a temple or elite home.

The reflected Buddha can be seen in this detail of the reflection.  (Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Museum of Art)

The reflected Buddha can be seen in this detail of the reflection. (Rob Deslongchamps/ Art Museum of Cincinnati )

“No matter how much you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master polishing the surface, which is enormously difficult. That’s why they’re so rare,” explained Dr. Sung, who admits experts still don’t understand how the metal works What’s most exciting about this: She believes many museums have hidden such mirrors somewhere in their niches, but are still unaware of it, which opens up the possibility for a lot of historical research opened on this topic.

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

By Sahir Pandey

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