The Art of the Samurai at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Editorial Staff Art, Exhibitions

Selecting a single object from the myriad works on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s current exhibition Art of the Samurai (through January 10, 2010) presents a challenge. The exhibit, which Roberta Smith of the New York Times has called a “once-in-lifetime event for children, war buffs and connoisseurs of all ages, even garden-variety art lovers,” includes more than two hundred masterworks—on loan from Japanese museums, shrines, and private collections, that include 34 National Treasures, 64 Important Cultural Properties, and six Important Art objects. It’s the largest massing of such works ever to be displayed anywhere. Visitors to the exhibition are treated to a dynamic display that ranges from the tiny—an 18th-century copper and gold knife handle with guardian figures measuring only 1 3/8 inches long—to the magnificent—a 16th-century black-plated suit of armor with a massive deer-horn helmet.

Several cases are devoted to the art of the swordsmith—the minimalist unadorned steel blades, which date from the 5th to the 19th century, are often called the “spirit of the samurai.” Counterbalancing them are fantastical helmets of the Edo period (1615-1868), ranging in form and design from a five-story pagoda to a praying mantis to a replica of Mount Fuji, each more impressive than the last. Nearly all of the works in the exhibit were made to be worn or carried and thus symbolize a special relationship to the owner and his body, so provenance is an important mark of distinction.

One such object is a breathtaking set of a saddle (kura) and pair of stirrups (abumi) from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Designated an Important Cultural Property, the set is believed to have been owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), whose name was recorded on an associated preparatory drawing. He was one of the most famous samurai in history, having risen from poverty to become one of the central daimyo (warlord) figures in the unification of Japan. The saddle (made from chestnut wood) and stirrups (iron with wooden inserts) were each decorated in the finest maki-e style of the Momoyama period. A reed motif is articulated in gold—with varying technical application of gold sheet, high-relief and thin lacquer—against a rich black lacquer background. Additionally, silver dewdrops have been applied to the reeds and gold edging around the saddle’s pommel.

Like a number of works in the exhibition, this saddle and stirrups demonstrate an unerring attention to beauty in Japanese culture that permeates even to the accoutrements of battle. While many of the objects are intimidating in scale and form, there is an underlying concern for aesthetics in each that is unparalleled.

Image: Saddle and stirrups, Monoyama period, 16th century. Tokyo National Museum.