Buddha in the Mirror: Discovering the Cincinnati Art Museum

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

Last exhibited in 2017, it had spent much of the previous decades in a warehouse, where it sat on a shelf in the back room alongside other objects excluded from public display.

But the artifact had a secret hidden in plain sight.

While researching so-called “magic mirrors” – rare antique mirrors which, under certain lights, reveal hidden images or patterns on their reflective surfaces – the Asian Art Museum curator from the east, Hou-mei Sung, saw something resembling the examples from Edo period Japan.

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

Thus, last spring, she visited the museum’s reserves accompanied by a conservation expert.

“I asked him to shine a strong, focused light on the mirror,” Sung said in a video call from Cincinnati. “So she used her cell phone (flashlight) and it worked.”

On the wall in front of them was the appearance of a texture in the reflected light – not a distinct image, but enough to warrant further investigation. Following experiments using more powerful and focused lights, the mirror eventually revealed the image of a Buddha, rays of light emanating from his seated form. The inscription on the back of the mirror specifies who was depicted: Amitabha, an important figure in various schools of East Asian Buddhism.

This discovery makes the museum one of the few institutions in the world to have a magic mirror, according to Sung. The curator knows of only three others in possession of rare Buddhist-themed objects, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“We were so excited,” Sung said.

ongoing mystery

Before the invention of today’s glass mirrors, people from cultures around the world looked at polished bronze, from ancient Egypt to the Indus Valley. The ancient art of Chinese magic mirrors was first developed in the Han dynasty around 2,000 years ago, although they were also later made in Japan.

To create the mysterious effect, the craftsmen started by casting images, words or designs on one side of a bronze plate. The scientists believe they then scraped and scraped the smooth surface on the other side, before polishing it until it became reflective like a conventional mirror. Because the plate was of varying thickness, due to the raised design, the process created very slight changes in curvature on the seemingly blank mirror side. A mercury-based substance was then used to create additional surface stresses that were invisible to the naked eye but matched the elaborate designs on the back, according to an article in the UNESCO Courier newspaper.

When sunlight strikes the reflective surface in a certain way, a hidden image – matching the design on the back – is revealed, giving the illusion of light passing through the mirror. For this reason, they are known in Chinese as “transparent” or “light penetrating” mirrors. (In the case of the Cincinnati Art Museum find, however, a second metal plate was probably soldered to the back, leaving the original embossed Buddha hidden inside.)

The mirrors puzzled Western scientists who encountered them in the 19th century. And while their optics are now widely understood, Sung said experts still don’t know precisely how the craftsmen worked the metal.

“No matter what you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master polishing the surface, which is extremely difficult,” she said. “That’s why they’re so rare.”

Measuring approximately 8.5 inches in diameter, the mirror in the museum was likely used as a religious ornament and may have hung in a temple or noble house. The museum has yet to decipher whether it is from China or Japan, although Sung believes it is most likely the former.

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

“I’ve found a lot of things in online auctions that have a similar design to ours, but (the auction listings) never say they’re magic mirrors,” she said, adding: “I think there might be mirrors there that people don’t use.” I don’t even know they’re magic.”

The mirror will go on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum beginning July 23.

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Mildred D. Field