December 16, 2014

At the Met: Warring Beauty

Helmet in the Shape of a Sea Conch, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; iron, with gold and silver inlay.

I enjoy wandering into the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armor collection from time to time. In the European gallery 371, the small men clad in shining steel sit atop small horses (humans and horses were much much smaller in the 16th century), also covered in armor. They are gorgeous and frightening. My favorite gallery in this extensive collection is 377, Japanese Arms and Armor. Here I can ponder Homo sapiens's deep attachment to aggression while looking at freely inventive and beautiful objects worn for war. These were armor for Samurai, Japan's warrior elite. As described on the Met's website at the samurai link:
Mastery of the arts of war was by no means sufficient. To achieve and maintain their wealth and position, the samurai also needed political, financial, and cultural acumen.
Samurai were patrons of Buddhism, of the arts of painting and theater and calligraphy; some were poets. Knowing this, it is not surprising that a helmet would express such creativity, and such careful observation of a natural object.

Helmet in the Shape of a Sea Conch detail

That object, a sea shell, is inlaid with delicate designs in gold and silver, adding a vividness to the gray iron.

Helmet in the Shape of a Crouching Rabbit, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; lacquered iron, silver, gold, leather, silk.

A rabbit crouches amid grasses, looking like it's about to spring forward. This is another surprising image for a warrior's helmet. I wonder if the rabbit is a symbol of the warrior's clan or lord.

Helmet (Suji Kabuto), inscribed by Yoshihisa and Nobumasa, Japan, Muromachi period, 16th century; iron, silver, stenciled leather, silk. 

This helmet seems closer to what one would expect in a warring setting, a shape that could even be modern. But then there is the elegant floral silver inlay, making poetry out of iron.

Helmet (Hoshi-Kabuto) in the 16th century style, Japan, Edo period, ca. late 17th - early 18th century; 
lacquered iron, silk. 

Here is another seemingly fanciful decoration: two pine cones with nature's geometry in front of lines of raised rivets, an orderly sculptural expression.

Samurai's Hat (Jingasa), Japan, Edo period, late 18th - early 19th century; 
lacquered paper maché, copper, silver, gold.

This beautiful hat, so clear in line and simple in its decoration, "was worn for traveling or in camp".

Armor (Gusoku), Japan, Edo period, 17th century; lacquered iron, silk, gilt copper. 

In the gallery are several full sets of armor, complete with frightening masks. It's interesting to contrast this set of armor with the European, in which the face is totally hidden. The expression of this Japanese mask reminds me of the fearsome faces made by Maori warriors in their war dance.

from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha

Many of us are aware of samurai culture from the movies, especially those period dramas of the brilliant Kurosawa. The Japanese armor in display cases in the museum comes to life with the images of his films vividly in mind. Kagemusha is one of the most powerful anti-war films I have seen, a cry from the heart against human foolishness and stupidity. We can hope to take the beauty and leave the war behind.


  1. Oh that elegant black cone hat, used for traveling or in camp (!), is to die for! I would love to clap that on my noggin and cause a stir on my next trip to, say, Trader Joe's...Thank you, Altoon, for your perpetually curious spirit and wide imaginative range...Wishing you all the peace and joy of this beautiful season.

    1. Isn't it wonderful, Heather; I love that hat too.
      Thanks for the good wishes; I send them back to you.

  2. These are some wonderful pieces. I pray daily for Peace. War is not good for anything.