As the name implies, Art of Armor recently opened at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gives us a broad look into the aesthetics of samurai armor. The exhibition features more than 140 objects from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller collection, including armored horses carrying combat-ready samurai in full regalia.
Having come to appreciate armor through my love of ukyio-e prints I was aware of how artfully they were portrayed in print media but I wasn't prepared for the staggering detail observed in a large scale exhibit of actual examples.
Kuniyoshi - The last stand of the Kusunoki at Shijô-nawate under a hail of arrows in 1348 (1857)
Nor would I have been surprised to learn that artists had taken liberties to embellish the amount of decoration to add drama to the action of a print. Nothing could be further from the truth as the detail and elaboration of each samurai's armor was a masterpiece of collaborative efforts that would difficult to capture in its entirety.
Artisans required to manufacture these armors included metal workers both forgers and decorative, braid makers and embroiderers, painters and sculptors, in short an army of artists to make the suit of one warrior. Each suit in the collection is a riot of color texture and the style of each is unique, which is perhaps partly due to the preferences of the curators and the original collectors Ann and J. Gabriel Barbier-Mueller.
Some items are clearly ceremonial and some purpose built as protection or weapon but all show an attention to artistry that have helped the samurai to transcend cultural roots and become embedded in our collective consciousness.
The other purpose of the ornamentation is identification. While rank and file warriors needed little more than a badge on the helmet or breastplate and perhaps a flag on their backs the men of high rank wanted to be identified, both to their men but also to be recognized so that their deeds of valor could be noted. In times of peace samurai of wealth and rank could commission highly eccentric designs.
Although far removed from the era of the samurai and now subject to our romantic notions gleaned from popular culture this exhibition is certain to raise a renewed interest in the actual lives and times of samurai in feudal Japan.
Samurai - Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier- Mueller Collection on view in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 4th.
m the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection