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‘Magic Mirror’: Hidden Image Discovered in the Reflection of a Centuries-old Artifact at the Cincinnati Art Museum

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Written Oscar Holland, CNN

Among the thousands of treasures in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection of East Asian art, a small bronze mirror dating from the 15th or 16th century has always seemed unremarkable.

It was last exhibited in 2017 and has spent much of the previous decades in storage, where it sat on a shelf in the back room along with other objects excluded from public display.

But the artifact had a secret hidden in plain sight.

While examining so-called “magic mirrors” — rare ancient mirrors that, under certain lighting conditions, reveal images or patterns hidden on their reflective surfaces — the museum’s curator of East Asian art, Hou-mei Sun, saw something resembling examples from Edo-era Japan.

The mirror dated to the 15th or 16th, most likely hung in the temple or noble house. Credit: Rob DeLongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum

The item kept in Cincinnati, Ohio, was smaller than those kept in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai and New York. It also featured a more complex style of Chinese writing. However, Song recalled that there was something “very similar” about it.

So, last spring, she visited the museum vaults, accompanied by a conservation expert.

“I asked her to shine a bright, focused light on the mirror,” Sun said during a video call from Cincinnati. “So, she used her mobile phone (flashlight), and it worked.”

There was texture on the wall in front of them in the reflected light, a fuzzy image, but sufficient for further study. After experimenting with more powerful and focused light sources, the image of the Buddha eventually appeared in the mirror, beams of light coming from his seated body. The inscription on the back of the mirror tells who was depicted: Amitabha, an important figure in various schools of East Asian Buddhism.

A close-up of a reflected image showing beams of light emanating from a Buddha figure.

A close-up of a reflected image showing beams of light emanating from a Buddha figure. Credit: Rob DeLongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum

The discovery makes the museum one of the few institutions in the world that owns a magic mirror, Sun says. The curator is aware of only three other owners of rare Buddhist objects, including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“We were so excited,” Sun said.

Continuing Mystery

Before the invention of modern glass mirrors, people from different cultures around the world looked into polished bronze, from Ancient Egypt to the Indus Valley. The ancient art of Chinese magic mirrors was first developed during the Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, although later they were also made in Japan.

To create a mysterious effect, the artisans began by drawing images, words, or patterns onto one side of the bronze plate. Scientists believe they then scratched and scratched the smooth surface on the other side before polishing it until it was reflective like a normal mirror. Because the plate was of varying thickness due to the relief pattern, the process created very small changes in curvature on the seemingly empty mirror side. A mercury-based substance was then used to create additional surface stresses that were invisible to the naked eye but matched the intricate patterns on the back, according to an article in the UNESCO Courier.

When sunlight strikes a reflective surface in a certain way, the latent image corresponding to the pattern on the reverse side is revealed, giving the illusion that the light is passing directly through the mirror. For this reason, they are known in Chinese as “transparent” or “transparent” mirrors. (However, in the case of the opening of the Cincinnati Art Museum, a second metal plate was likely soldered to the back, leaving the original relief figure of the Buddha hidden inside.)

It is believed that a second bronze plate with the name of Buddha Amitabha was soldered to the back, hiding the image of the Buddha.

It is believed that a second bronze plate with the name of Buddha Amitabha was soldered to the back, hiding the image of the Buddha. Credit: Rob DeLongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum

Mirrors baffled Western scholars who encountered them in the 19th century. And while their optics are now widely known, Sun said experts still don’t know exactly how the craftsmen worked the metal.

“No matter how much you explain theoretically, it all depends on the master who polishes an extremely difficult surface,” she said. “That’s why they’re so rare.”

The museum mirror, about 8.5 inches in diameter, was probably used as a religious decoration and may have hung in a temple or a noble house. The museum has yet to decipher whether it originated in China or Japan, although Song believes it is most likely the former.

The item was first registered in the museum’s Asian art collection in 1961, although the curator believes it may have been acquired long before that. She also suspects that other institutions and collectors are in possession of magical mirrors without realizing it.

“I’ve found a lot on online auctions that have designs similar to ours, but (the auction listings) never say they’re magic mirrors,” she said, adding, “I believe there may be mirrors that people do not see. I don’t even know magic.”

The mirror will be exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum from July 23.

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