What was once thought to be an unremarkable, albeit old, Chinese mirror sitting in storage in a museum in the American midwest turned out to be a spectacular artefact full of awe and mystery. Dr Sung Hou-mei, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Curator of East Asian Art, was researching the ancient artwork that the Ohio museum had collected since 1961. Then she turned her attention to a 16th-century mirror with its most notable feature being the Chinese characters on the back, which spelled the name of the Amitābha Buddha. She decided to test a theory and asked the team to place direct light on the centre of the mirror, which had been in storage since 2017. What it revealed was momentous : when the light was reflected off the mirror it revealed an image of the Amitābha Buddha surrounded by emanating rays of light. “The Buddhist ‘magic mirror’ was designed for offering hope and salvation, so I think this discovery is an auspicious blessing for our museum and our city,” said Sung. “I tested this mirror because, through research, I found one other example of a Buddhist magic mirror,” she added. Buddhist magic mirrors, also called “transparent” and “light-penetrating” mirrors, were first made in China during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) and were also a notable artefact from Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867). Because of their difficulty to manufacture, magic mirrors are extremely rare. The Shanghai Museum has mirrors from the Han dynasty, but only two other magic mirrors featuring buddhist imagery are known to exist, both from Japan, with one on display at the Tokyo National Museum and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. According to an article on the Unesco Digital Library, the mirrors are made of bronze, with designs engraved on the back panel. The reflecting side is, crucially, in a convex shape and polished to become reflective. When the mirror is held to light from the correct angle, the bronze reflects the light to reveal the secret image, a buddha in the case of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s relic. According to the Unesco article, the mirror is designed with minute but deliberate imperfections made through an elaborate scraping and scratching technique. The mirror is then polished and covered with a liquid or paste made of mercury to accentuate the “magic” design. These deliberate blemishes allow light to reflect at specific spots, creating a shape. “They are very rare because they are difficult to make,” said Sung. “The polishing of the mirror’s surface curvature to achieve the ‘magic’ effect is extremely difficult.” Interestingly, the Chinese characters on the back of the mirror in Cincinnati spelling the name of the Amitābha Buddha may have been a clue that this mirror was far more significant than initially thought. Sung said the mirror was likely used for religious purposes and is associated with the Amida faith of the Jodo Buddhism sect, which originates in Japan and is still the most widely practised form of Buddhism in the country. That faith stresses the teachings of the Amitābha Buddha, consistent with the mirror honouring the ancient monk. After being tucked away in storage, the mirror went on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum on July 23, and Sung said the reaction to the news was “Great excitement!”. “This is a national treasure of China, and we are so lucky to have rediscovered this rare object and have it on view in Cincinnati,” she said.