Magic Mirror

CT Scan of Putnam Mirror
This is a CT scan between the layers of the Putnam "Magic Mirror"

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Step Into a New Discovery

For over 100 years the Putnam has had a magic mirror sitting in collections and did not know. This is a two sided bronze mirror from Japan that was purchased by Charles A. Ficke in 1904-5 and subsequently donated to the museum. When light is shone onto this seemingly ordinary bronze mirror, it reveals a hidden image that is reflected upon the wall.

The Magic Mirror’s temporary display period has ended. Look for it to be permanently on display in a new gallery in late 2024! 

In the mean time, learn more about the Magic Mirror and how it came to be rediscovered below!

FAQs

Who made it?

  • We don’t know exactly who the artisan was, but they would have been a skilled metalworker.  
When was it made?
  • We are not positive, but most likely the latter half of the 19th century CE during the Meiji Period. It could also have been made during the late Edo Period.
Why is it called a “Magic Mirror”?
  • This type of bronze mirror is called magic because when the light is reflected off of its polished surface onto a flat, white surface, it reflects an image which is otherwise invisible to the naked eye. What seems to be a blank polished surface is able to reflect a detailed image – in this case, an image of Buddha.
How did it get to the Putnam Museum in Davenport? 
  • The mirror was purchased in 1904 by C.A. Ficke during a trip to Japan. he doesn’t tell us what town he purchased it in, just that it came from Japan. In his ledger he describes it as “very old”, but in all likelihood it was only a few decades old at the time. 
How does it work?
  • The mirror’s magic properties are a result of careful craftsmanship. The bronze mirror is made up of two plates sandwiched together. The ‘back’ plate has the visible Chinese inscription “Amitabha Buddha”, and the front plate has a visible smooth polished surface serving as a mirror. However, on the reverse side of the front plate, hidden between the layers of bronze, is an image of Buddha. The key to being able to see the image in the light is polishing the mirror to a thickness of 1mm in the thinnest spots, which leaves the negative space around the Buddha thinner than the lines of the Buddha himself, creating a microscopic variation in the depth of the lines, creating the reflection of the Buddha in the light.  
What does “Amitabha Buddha” mean?
  • Amitabha Buddha is an important buddha in Pure land Buddhism. He is believed to have once been a monk named Dharmakara. He believed that by living according to 48 tenets, he may reach or be reborn into the realm buddhaksetra, or Pure land/Buddha Land. There are some that believe that he lived many lives of great merit and created his own Pure Land called Sukhavati, which his followers may attain themselves.
How many of these mirrors are there? 
  • We’re not sure! Lots of mirrors like this one are probably in museums and private collections all over the world without people realizing what they are. Recently a researcher named Janet Leigh Foster shared that she had counted 24 double-plated bronze mirrors worldwide, and only a handful of them are known to be in the United States. This includes the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now the Putnam Museum and Science Center.
This mirror seems very similar to the Cincinnati Art Museum mirror.
  • It certainly is! Dr. Hou-mei Sung (CAM Curator of East Asian Art) agrees that our two mirrors seem to be the same type. It may be that they were produced in the same workshop, maybe by the same artist, perhaps cast from the same mold. We’re excited to learn more by comparing the mirrors. Another very similar mirror is in the Kamakura Museum in Japan. 
Why didn’t you know it was a “Magic Mirror”?
  • When the mirror was donated in 1914, Charles Ficke’s ledger listed it as a “magic mirror”. Yet at some point in the years following that information was lost and the card catalog entry for the same mirror listed it simply as a bronze mirror from Japan. It sat in collections for over 100 years with the other bronze mirrors. Magic mirrors are very rare and not common knowledge. It wasn’t until the Cincinnati Art Museum shared their discovery of their own mirror in 2022 that staff thought to check the mirror to see if it truly was “magic”.
 

Thank you to Jordan Voigt, Brandi Eriksen, Vanessa Fowler of Genesis Health System for donating their time and equipment to help authenticate this discovery. Special thanks to Dr. Hou-Mei Sung and Kelly Rectenwald of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Janet Leigh Foster of the University of London for sharing their expertise 

Major general operating support is provided to the Putnam by the City of Davenport; Quad Cities Cultural Trust; Putnam Power Circle Members; the Iowa Arts Council, which exists within the Iowa Economic Development Authority; and Birdies for Charity.

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