Come take a good, hard look at the 400-year-old obsidian "magic" mirror from the Aztec Empire at the National Palace Museum!
“Mirror, mirror on the wall...” What would you wish for if you owned a magical black mirror? Starting on July 19th, such a mirror–The Obsidian Mirror of the Aztec Empire–will be unveiled at The National Palace Museum’s (NPM) special exhibition hall dedicated to the display of national treasures (Gallery 302), mesmerizing visitors with its dark and minimalistic charisma.
The Obsidian Mirror of the Aztec Empire is a piece crafted by artisans from the Aztec Empire in Central America dating to the 15th-16th centuries. Obsidian is a natural volcanic glass. The glossy surface is achieved through finely sanding down and polishing both sides of the material, which creates a highly reflective and penetrative effect, lending the jet-black surface a clean and smooth texture. The shades of grey and black combined give off an abstract yet mysterious “smoky” feel.
According to the NPM, the obsidian mirror is quite significant in Aztec culture, associated with Tezcatlipoca, who was one of the four Aztec creator deities in charge of war, witchcraft, and the night sky. The mirror was believed to be a medium for the rulers and the deity and thought to be a portal to the past, present, and future.
During the 16th century, many treasures owned by Aztec aristocrats were brought to Europe as Spanish colonizers conquered Central America. Under the context of European culture, the obsidian mirror gained a new symbolic meaning and was seen as a magic instrument. John Dee (1527-1608), the most famous magician who served as Queen Elizabeth I’s consulter, was known to have used an obsidian mirror to perform black magic. The obsidian mirror Dee used is currently displayed in the British Museum.
The obsidian mirror held at the NPM today is assumed to be from the Qing dynasty. Many emperors valued the mirror: perplexed by the unfamiliar object, Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661), for instance, once asked Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), a Western missionary, to identify the obsidian mirror; Emperors Qianlong (1711-1799) and Daoguang (1782-1850) composed poems about the obsidian mirror. Over the years, this obsidian mirror underwent many name changes from “Ink-Jade Mirror” to the recent “Ink-Crystal Mirror.” Scholars at the NPM have confirmed that this obsidian mirror is an extremely rare specimen from the Mesoamerican Aztec culture.
“The Gathering of Treasures in the National Palace Museum North and South:
The Obsidian Mirror of the Aztec Empire”
Exhibition date: Starting from 2022.07.19
Exhibition venue: The National Palace Museum, Northern Branch, Gallery 302