‘Magic’ Mirror Reveals at Cincinnati Art Museum, Surprising Staff

A curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum has discovered a hidden treasure in the museum’s collection. Hou-Mei Sung says a 21-centimeter bronze mirror believed to be from the 16th century had an unexpected feature. If you shine a light on it, it reflects a projected image of a Buddha.

“We all know that metal, light cannot penetrate it. That’s why they call it “magic”. This one is even more magical, you can see it’s a hidden image inside the mirror,” she says.

Sung says no one knows exactly where the mirror came from — China or Japan — how old he is or how he ended up in Cincinnati.

She says there are only a few in the world to compare him to. “All the other examples are around 24 centimeters, so ours is slightly smaller. But the Buddha image it projects, I think, is really more detailed and refined.

Photography: Rob Deslongchamps.

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Cincinnati Museum of Art

Buddhist bronze mirror, 15th-16th century, China or Japan, bronze, Source unknown, Cincinnati Art Museum, x1961.2.

It has been in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum since 1961, but no one was aware of its particular properties. Sung says she was planning an exhibition in 2021 and needed the mirror.

“We don’t have too many Buddha statues. So I found this Buddhist prayer as a kind of mirror. I thought it could be displayed. And then I started looking. And that’s how I found a magic mirror with similar characteristics in other museums,” she says. The mirror was used in a 2017 exhibit on Japanese armor, but Sung can’t say conclusively whether it was Japanese or actually from China.

She loves mystery. “One of the most exciting things for a curator, for me, is researching things in a museum. A lot of them lead me to interesting stories.”

Sung works with a metallurgy professor at UC to determine how the effect was created.

The mirror will go on permanent display at the Cincinnati Art Museum beginning July 23.

Mildred D. Field