The small bronze mirror from the 15th or 16th century was gathering dust in a storeroom in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s East Asian Art collection. It would have probably remained forgotten and dusty if a curator hadn’t put research and a remarkable memory together. The museum’s curator of East Asian art was researching “magic mirrors,” or rare ancient mirrors that in certain light show hidden images. That curator, Hou-mei Sung, saw something resembling the examples from Edo-period Japan.

The item in storage in Cincinnati was smaller than the ones held in museums in Tokyo, Shanghai and New York City. It also featured a more complex style of Chinese script. Sung recalled there was something “very similar” about it. Last spring, she sought it out, along with a conservation expert. The conservator shone her cell phone light at the mirror. There was something there. Using a more powerful light later, the mirror’s reflection showed the image of a Buddha, rays of light emanating from his seated form. The inscription on the mirror’s back spells out who was depicted: Amitabha, an important figure in various schools of East Asian Buddhism.

Only three other Buddhist-themed “magic mirrors” are known to exist. The mirror will be on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum starting July 23.

magic mirror buddha reflection

Photos: Rob Deslongchamps/Cincinnati Art Museum (via


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