It was last shown in 2017, and has spent much of the previous decades in storage, sitting on a back shelf alongside other things left out of public view.
But the artifact was hiding in plain sight.
The mirror, dating from the 15th or 16th century, likely hung in a temple or noble’s house. attributed to him: Rob Deslongchamp/Cincinnati Museum of Art
The items stored in Cincinnati, Ohio, were smaller than those in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai, and New York. It also has a more complex style than the Chinese script. However, Song recalled that there was something “very similar” to this.
So, last spring, she visited the museum’s storage rooms with a restoration expert.
“I asked her to shine a strong, focused light on the mirror,” Song said on 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 the tapestry in the reflected light – not a distinctive image, but enough to warrant further investigation. After experiments with more powerful and focused lights, the mirror eventually revealed a Buddha image, rays of light emanating from his seated form. The inscription on the back of the mirror shows who was depicted: Amitabha, an important figure in the various schools of Buddhism in East Asia.
Close-up of the reflected image, depicting rays of light emanating from the Buddha statue. attributed to him: Rob Deslongchamp/Cincinnati Museum of Art
“We were very excited,” Song said.
Before today’s glass mirrors were invented, people from all over the world stared at 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 they were also made later in Japan.
When sunlight hits the reflective surface a certain way, a hidden image will be revealed – matching the design on the back – giving the illusion that the light is going straight through the mirror. For this reason, they are known in Chinese as “transparent” or “light-piercing” mirrors. (Should the Cincinnati Museum of Art discover, a second metal plate would likely have been welded to the back, leaving the original inscribed Buddha statue hidden inside.)
A second bronze plate, named after Amitabha Buddha, is believed to have been welded to the back, to conceal the Buddha’s image. attributed to him: Rob Deslongchamp/Cincinnati Museum of Art
“No matter how much you can explain in theory, it all depends on the master polishing the surface which is very difficult,” she said. “That’s why they are so rare.”
Measuring about 8.5 inches in diameter, the museum mirror was likely used as a religious decoration and may have hung in a temple or noble house. The museum has yet to decipher whether it originated in China or Japan, although Song thinks it likely was the first.
The piece was first recorded in the museum’s Asian art collection in 1961, although the curator believes it may have been acquired much earlier. She also suspects other institutions and collectors of possessing magic mirrors without even realizing it.
“I’ve found a lot in online auctions that have a similar design to ours, but (auction listings) never say it’s magic mirrors,” she said, adding, “I think there could be some mirrors that people don’t even know it’s magic.” “.
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