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.
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. Credit: Rob DeLongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum
“We were so excited,” Sun said.
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.
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. Credit: Rob DeLongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum
“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.”
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