Mention “magic mirror” to most people and the image which probably comers to mind is the infamous talking “Who’s the fairest of them all?” mirror from the Snow White fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm and introduced to the masses by the Disney animated film. Some might also think of the “spirit mirror” – a pitch-black oval alleged to be able to summon spirits by John Dee, the occultist and advisor to Queen Elizaeth I who also coined the phrase “British Empire.” However, at the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio, curators are using the phrase to describe a mysterious ancient ‘transparent’ mirror discovered recently which can ‘magically’ beam pictures on the wall. Let’s take a look at all three and decide which one truly deserves the title of “magic mirror.”
“When light is projected on them, the mirrors appear transparent and reveal characters or a decorative design.”
Hou-mei Sung in the curator of East Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Like most museums, Sung’s employer has only a small portion of its massive collection on display at any one time, and curators are constantly working behind the scenes – digging through old boxes and crates for rare items that may have been hidden, misplaced or mislabeled. That was the case recently for Sung while examining an artifact on a backroom shelf. Sung is an expert in the field of so-called ‘magic mirrors’ – alleged transparent or light penetrating mirrors which date back to China’s Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). Before the advent of modern mirrors, polished bronze was used by the rich to check out how they looked before heading out into the public. While bronze mirrors date back to at least 2900 BCE, they became popular when craftsmen in the Han dynasty learned how to mass-produce them
"No matter how much you can explain theoretically, it all depends on the master who polishes the surface which is tremendously difficult. That's why they are so rare."
Actually, the magic isn’t exactly theoretical. The secret starts on the reflective side of the thin plates of bronze. As the metal was cast and polished, it would bulge slightly but imperceptibly due to the stress. More minute imperfections were made when a mercury amalgam was laid over the surface. Some of these stresses were due to what was on the flipside of the thin bronze plate – intricate artistic decorations. While users found the bronze mirrors to work fairly well in reflecting their images, everything changed when the shiny side caught and reflected a bright light. As the light was beamed onto a wall, the imperfections created visible shadows which somewhat resembled the images on the back – thus fooling the owner into thinking light was actually beaming through the mirror. Once the mirror makers figured this out, they learned how to control the imperfections and their reflections. The ones on the mirror found by Sung beam six characters (南無阿彌陀佛) that name Amitābha Buddha, and the reflection reveals an image of the Buddha shrouded in heavenly beams. (You can see it here.)
“The discovery makes the museum one of only a handful of institutions in the world to own a magic mirror, according to Sung. The curator is only aware of three others in possession of rare Buddhist-themed ones, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”
Sung told CNN the magic mirror, 8.5 inches in diameter, was probably hung on the wall of a temple or noble household as a religious ornament. Because it is smaller than known magic mirrors, Sung thinks it was cast aside as having no historic value, and believes other museums, art collectors and auction houses may have more without knowing it. If you’re interested, this one is on now display at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
“One of the most well-known objects on display in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery is the obsidian mirror associated with John Dee, the Renaissance polymath, magus and confidant of Queen Elizabeth I. The mirror's links to Dee's occult practices have created a unique set of meanings around this object.”
A study published in October 2021 revealed new information about another mysterious mirror – the so-called ‘spirit mirror’ said to have been used by John Dee during seances to summon images of spirits and angels on the highly-polished black surface of the obsidian (volcanic glass) disk. Little was known about how Dee obtained his mirror, but the 2021 study y Cambridge University researchers traced the obsidian back to Mexico where Aztec priests wore them during rituals to conjure visions – they were associated with Tezcatlipoca, god of obsidian and sorcery, whose name in the Nahuatl language means 'Smoking Mirror’. While the conquerors felt superior to the Aztecs, they still respected their occult powers and the ‘spirit mirror’ of John Dee is a prime example.
"Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?"
Those words first appeared in the collection of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) in the first edition of their collection Grimms' Fairy Tales under the title German title “Sneewittchen.” The mirror is a snitch – it told Snow White’s stepmother that Snow was the fairest, that she was being hidden from her by seven dwarfs, and that Snow survived the queen’s murder attempt with the poison apple. The ‘magic mirror’ takes on various forms in the hundreds of translations and adaptations of the famous fairy tale – in some it is the Sun or the Moon, in some it is broken at the end, but its predominant role is to answer the questions of the queen truthfully, thus connecting her to Snow White. Thus it was ‘magic’ for the evil queen but not for Sneewittchen.
Do we need a magic mirror to tell us which one of these magic mirrors truly deserves the title? It would seem that the Chinese version would qualify since it is real and can perform its magic on command, but the ‘magic’ can be explained and duplicated by science. John Dee’s spirit mirror was used in real magical rituals while the Chinese version was more of a religious decoration, but Dee’s ‘magic’ can’t be duplicated with his or any other obsidian mirror. The magic mirror of the Brothers Grimm is definitely the most magical and most famous … but it’s also the least real. That puts the crown on the rare Chinese magic mirror now on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Does this make Hou-mei Sung the fairest curator of East Asian art and magic mirrors of them all?