Spotlight on the Collection

July 2014: Armor

Armor (Tōsei Gusoku), Muromachi period (1392-1573), about 1550. Saotome Iyetada (Japanese, active mid-16th century). Lacquer, wood, iron and silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Endowed Funds for Asian Art Acquisitions, the Birmingham Museum of Art Volunteer Council, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr., Mrs. Gerda Carmichael, Mr. James D. Sokol, Mr. and Mrs. Victor Hanson II, and Dr. and Mrs. James Kamplain, 1997.137.1-.6.

Armor (Tōsei Gusoku), Muromachi period (1392-1573), about 1550. Saotome Iyetada (Japanese, active mid-16th century). Lacquer, wood, iron and silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Endowed Funds for Asian Art Acquisitions, the Birmingham Museum of Art Volunteer Council, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr., Mrs. Gerda Carmichael, Mr. James D. Sokol, Mr. and Mrs. Victor Hanson II, and Dr. and Mrs. James Kamplain, 1997.137.1-.6.

Armor, Saotome Iyetada, about 1550

To a modern audience, suits of samurai armor may seem extravagant or even flamboyant; however, each element served a real purpose. Besides providing protection, high-status samurai warriors needed to be identified by their foot soldiers and to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield. At least four to six different artisans created suits like this one, working together in a manner not unlike an assembly line. The colors and patterning on armor identified a warrior’s rank; those on this suit link it to the daimyō (governor), so it belonged to a samurai of high status.

In the 16th century, changes in warfare and interactions with European – mainly Portuguese – traders produced helmets called kawari kabuto (“extraordinary” or “fancy”). Forms included simple animal shapes like rabbits and bears, dragons, and stylized horns like the ones on this helmet. An artist created these designs with materials such as papier-mâché or lightweight wood. For wealthier classes of samurai, helmets included more complicated designs, like Mount Fuji, to distinguish high-ranking military leaders on the battlefield. In large battles, it was essential to discern friend from foe quickly, so form often took precedence over maneuverability.

The ferocity of a soldier’s armor was meant to project an image of superhuman strength and fearlessness in the face of death. The samurai often fought in one-on-one duels; warriors proceeded from opponent to opponent until called off by their officer. When combined with kawari kabuto, face masks with pointed teeth or wiry moustaches created frightening adversaries in this type of combat.

Join the conversation!

Today, people use clothing, piercings, tattoos, and other outward signs to project certain aspects of their identity, to intimidate (like the samurai’s helmets), or simply to stand out in a crowd. How do you project your identity? What do you hope to express about yourself? How have these markers affected your relationships, perceptions, or self-image?

Check out these links, and join the conversation below!

“Mark My Words. Maybe.” New York Times, April 12, 2014

Object Lessons: Samurai Warrior Armor, Christie’s

2 Responses

  1. Chris Humphris

    This looks like a fabulous exhibition.

    Unfortunately I am in England, do you have a catalogue in print or online? My Master’s thesis is around the Japanese warrior and how we perceive them today so this would be of great interest and add background to my work.

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