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Buddhist ‘magic mirror’ found in Cincinnati museum

“Mirror, my beautiful mirror, tell me who is the most beautiful!” This request for narcissistic reassurance, all the mirrors have not necessarily heard it. Certainly, human beings have made this object, capable of reflecting their image more or less faithfully, in order to admire themselves, to admire themselves, to observe themselves. But there are certain kinds, called “magical”, which are not only configured to reflect the face of a person, however bewitching it may be, but also a secret motif, most often the beneficent image of a deity. . Originally made in China, these mirrors are very rare. One of them was recently found in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio (USA), where it is now on display.

This “magic mirror” in bronze hides a secret pattern in its reflection

The Cincinnati Art Museum has one of the oldest collections of East Asian art in the United States. The museum indeed acquired its first works from Korea, China and Japan in 1881. In all, it houses more than 100,000 objects which retain, at least for some, a little of their mystery. This is shown by a recent discovery made by the curator responsible for the East Asian collections, Hou-mei Sung. In order to prepare for a future exhibition, she inspects the museum’s reserves in the spring of 2021 and finds a bronze disk that has been neglected. Present for more than fifty years in collections, it was last exposed to the public eye in 2017 as a simple mirror. Its appearance is banal: the face is certainly polished, but almost opaque, and the reflection that can be seen there is necessarily vague; on the back, oxidized, six ideograms are engraved. The name of Buddha Amitābha can be read there.
Amitābha (or Amida) is the central figure of Pure Land Buddhism, who symbolizes a perfect world, free from all suffering. Before becoming a Buddha, Amitābha was in a previous existence a king who became a monk and vowed to become a bodhisattva (aspirant to perfection, who has not yet reached the state of Buddha). He is often represented in a luminous halo made up of 48 beams, corresponding to each of the wishes he would have issued as a bodhisattva.

“Transparent mirrors” were made in China during the Han dynasty

Knowing of an almost identical mirror at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, curator Hou-mei Sung has a hunch that the Cincinnati museum’s bronze disk might prove more interesting than its understated appearance suggests. .

“Mirror, my beautiful mirror, tell me who is the most beautiful!” This request for narcissistic reassurance, all the mirrors have not necessarily heard it. Certainly, human beings have made this object, capable of reflecting their image more or less faithfully, in order to admire themselves, to admire themselves, to observe themselves. But there are certain kinds, called “magical”, which are not only configured to reflect the face of a person, however bewitching it may be, but also a secret motif, most often the beneficent image of a deity. . Originally made in China, these mirrors are very rare. One of them was recently found in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio (USA), where it is now on display.

This “magic mirror” in bronze hides a secret pattern in its reflection

The Cincinnati Art Museum has one of the oldest collections of East Asian art in the United States. The museum indeed acquired its first works from Korea, China and Japan in 1881. In all, it houses more than 100,000 objects which retain, at least for some, a little of their mystery. This is shown by a recent discovery made by the curator responsible for the East Asian collections, Hou-mei Sung. In order to prepare for a future exhibition, she inspects the museum’s reserves in the spring of 2021 and finds a bronze disk that has been neglected. Present for more than fifty years in collections, it was last exposed to the public eye in 2017 as a simple mirror. Its appearance is banal: the face is certainly polished, but almost opaque, and the reflection that can be seen there is necessarily vague; on the back, oxidized, six ideograms are engraved. The name of Buddha Amitābha can be read there.
Amitābha (or Amida) is the central figure of Pure Land Buddhism, who symbolizes a perfect world, free from all suffering. Before becoming a Buddha, Amitābha was in a previous existence a king who became a monk and vowed to become a bodhisattva (aspirant to perfection, who has not yet reached the state of Buddha). He is often represented in a luminous halo made up of 48 beams, corresponding to each of the wishes he would have issued as a bodhisattva.

“Transparent mirrors” were made in China during the Han dynasty

Knowing of an almost identical mirror at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, curator Hou-mei Sung has a hunch that the Cincinnati museum’s bronze disk might prove more interesting than its understated appearance suggests. . What if it was a “magic mirror” – a mirror that under certain lighting conditions reflects a hidden image? She has to do it several times before finding the right intensity and the right orientation of the light source, but she does manage to make the image of a radiant Buddha – Buddha Amitābha – appear on a wall.

When the beam of light strikes the surface of the mirror at a precise angle, the motif representing Buddha Amitābha is reflected on the opposite wall. © Rob Deslongchamps / Cincinnati Art Museum

As the Cincinnati Art Museum press release tells us, “magic mirrors” were first created in China just over 2,000 years ago, during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). of our era). They are also called “transparent mirrors” or “light-penetrating mirrors”, because in most lighting conditions they act as a mirror and reflect the object in front of them, but when light strikes the surface at a particular angle, they act as if they were transparent and let in light to reflect characters or a decorative pattern, which are usually found depicted on its outer face.

Trade secrets

How can bronze become “transparent”? In other words: what was the secret of the Chinese craftsmen who first made this type of mirror? The Chinese scholars and the European scientists who tried to unlock their secret have long broken their teeth on this mystery.
In his book devoted to Chinese inventions and discoveries (When China preceded us), Robert KG Temple, which was based on the monumental work of the British sinologist Joseph Needham, cites as an example the hypothesis set out by the Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031-1095). The latter presumed that the mystery of the “magic mirrors” lay in the difference in the cooling rate of its different parts: “Those who argue the reason […] say that when the mirror was cast, the thinner part cooled first, while the signs or designs that stand out on the back, being thicker, later became cold, which caused tiny wrinkles in the bronze . Although the characters are on the back, the face bears lines too fine to be seen with the naked eye. […].”

The bronze magic mirror kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dates from the 19th century – from the Edo period (1615-1868) or Meiji (1868-1912) – and represents, like that of the Cincinnati Art Museum, a portrait of Buddha Amida. Back, front, internal plate and projected image views. © Rogers Fund, 1909 / Metropolitan Museum of Art

bronze magic mirror kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Credit: Rogers Fund, 1909 / Metropolitan Museum of Art

19th century scientists also tried to discover the technique used by the Chinese, Temple continues, performing all sorts of optical experiments which revealed that the pattern that adorned the back of the magic mirror was actually “reproduced” on the front. ; they did indeed show that there was “e small irregularities in the curvature“from the surface of the mirror,”the thick parts being a little flatter than the thin ones, and sometimes even becoming concave“. But it was not until 1932 that the crystal specialist William Henry Bragg, Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915, formulated the most convincing theory as to their manufacture.

William Bragg’s theory is the most convincing

Usually the pattern reflected by the magic mirror is the one on the back of the locket – but this is not always the case. It is presumed then that the craftsmen cast this relief pattern on the back of the disc. They would then polish the other side, scraping and scraping it, until they achieved a reflective shine. This polishing work implies that the thickness of the smoothed surface still follows the curves and contours of the pattern cast on the other side. On the polished surface, we finally extended a mercury-based coating, to play the role of tain, and this layer added an additional dimension to the discreet bulges of the mirror surface, explaining moreover the “texture” of the image, once reflected.

The image reflected by the magic mirror of the Cincinnati Art Museum Credit: Rob Deslongchamps / Cincinnati Art Museum

The reflected pattern of the “magic mirror” gains texture. © Rob Deslongchamps / Cincinnati Art Museum

But the mirror found in Cincinnati includes an additional variation, says curator Hou-mei Sung, in that the cast pattern on the back does not match the reflected image. In this case, we would have superimposed on the back of the mirror an additional bronze plate, engraved with Chinese ideograms. Because of this, the mirror reflects a more subtle image. Going beyond everyday use, this type of artifact is thus a work of art, the quality of which depends entirely on the expertise of the master who polishes the surface.

Only a few copies of “magic mirrors” in museums

Given the difficulty of making them, “magic mirrors” are very rare. There are only a few examples in international museums: the Shanghai Museum in China houses those dating back to the Han dynasty; the National Museum of Tokyo (Japan) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York each keep a Buddhist “magic mirror”. These two copies are Japanese mirrors that were made during the Edo period (1603-1867) or the Meiji period (1868-1912). According to the first research carried out, that of the Cincinnati Art Museum would be rather of Chinese manufacture and would perhaps date from the 15th or 16th century.
However, Japanese archaeologists have found a number of them in royal tombs and the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifies that these “magic mirrors” (makyoin Japanese), originally Chinese, conquered Japan, where they were used in both religious and everyday life.

The article is in French

Tags: Buddhist magic mirror Cincinnati museum

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