Octagonal mirror with animals, flowerets, and floral scrolls, China, early or mid-Tang dynasty, late 7th–first half of 8th century

Octagonal mirror with animals, flowerets, and floral scrolls, China, early or mid-Tang dynasty, late 7th–first half of 8th century. Cast bronze and applied gold plaque with repoussé, chased, and ring-punched decoration. Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1935.6a-b © 2017 Smithsonian Institution

The mirror’s diminutive size (slightly more than two inches in diameter) and finely worked gold back suggest its preciousness. Carried in a wide sleeve of a garment or in a silk pouch, mirrors such as this were probably owned by members of the Tang elite. The technique of using a silver or gold plaque to decorate the reverse of a bronze mirror first appeared during the Tang dynasty, and it was rarely found in later periods. Here, the craftsman first shaped a thin sheet of gold into raised designs of animals and flowers, and then he used extremely fine tools to define the details of the animals’ fur. Last, the gold plaque was attached to the bronze body with a filling material between them. It remains a mystery, however, as to how the craftsman made the tiny front and back legs of each animal completely raised above the ground, giving a sense of three-dimensionality to the animals in relief.