A curator from Cincinnati Art Museum has fortuitously discovered a previously undetected image of a Buddha hidden within a sixteenth-century mirror. When a bright light is shone on the unassuming bronze disc, an ethereal buddha surrounded by wispy clouds is magically projected onto nearby surfaces.
“There is nothing on the surface, it’s just a polished reflecting surface with a bit of corrosion,” explained Dr. Hou-Mei Sung, the museum’s curator of East Asian art, who made the discovery. “It doesn’t give you any clue.”
The mirror is an example of an exceedingly rare light-penetrating object known as tòu guāng jìng, and was made in China over 500 years ago. There are six characters on the reflective surface (南無阿彌陀佛) that identify the floating figure as Amitābha Buddha. Originating from the second century BCE during the Han Dynasty, these handheld mirrors were usually displayed near windows and doors to reflect bright sunlight. It is believed the casting of projections through this ancient art method was intended for ritual purposes.
“It appears to be more magic. It’s not reflecting the decoration on the back of the mirror, but an image hidden inside the mirror, like a miracle,” marvelled Sung.
Last year Sung was working on an exhibition of Japanese arms and armours when she began researching the mysterious objects. “It’s really fate or luck, we were going to put the bronze artwork on view in a museum gallery. Out of curiosity, I wanted to test it.” Sung recalled. “To our surprise, we found that it does indeed project a hidden image of the Buddha.”
The object was acquired by Cincinnati Art Museum in 1961 and has subsequently spent most of its time in storage. A few other examples of magic mirrors from the Han dynasty are held in Shanghai Museum, and the only two other Buddhist magic mirrors are held in the Tokyo National Museum and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The beguiling mirror, once shunned to the depths of museum storage, is now on permanent view in the East Asian galleries at Cincinnati Art Museum.