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Museum of Fine Arts Celebrates Samurai

Exhibition pays homage to Japanese warriors

An engrossing new show at the Museum of Fine Arts titled Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection celebrates those revered Japanese warriors, who arose in the 9th century and remained a fixture until the mid 19th century, when imperial rule returned to the country.

The show vividly captures what life in battle would have been like for these warriors. Featuring a stunning array of armor, helmets, and weaponry, it traces the evolution of samurai from armed peasant servants to experts in warfare loyal to individual feudal lords known as daimyo.

In the first gallery, visitors are greeted by three sets of armor, the oldest dating from the 14th century, the latest from the late 18th century. The extraordinary craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into creating each element in even the oldest of these suits of armor—which are made from iron, lacquer, leather, bronze, and horsehair—is striking. One chest armor is rendered in shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold. The sleeves depict the blossoming branches of a plum tree, the symbol of strength and perseverance. Another suit features black lacquered iron hand protectors, chain mail sleeves, and silk thigh protectors.

The exhibition, with more than 140 works, including 21 full suits of armor, is drawn from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum in Dallas, Tex., and is on view at the MFA through August 4. The show opened in Paris, before moving on to Quebec City. It will travel to several museums in the United States.

In one gallery, visitors can view all the components that went into a suit of samurai armor: helmet, mask, chest armor, shoulder guards, sleeves, a skirt, thigh protection, and shin guards. Articles of clothing that would have been worn under the armor, such as a surcoat and a jacket and pants, are also displayed. Viewers will be struck by how small these fearsome warriors were—the armor, which could weigh as much as 45 pounds, was designed for men no more than five feet tall.

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Eboshi-shaped helmet and half mask.

Each suit of armor required a fleet of artisans to complete. Blacksmiths created the metal pieces, leather-craft workers the protective leather elements, and weavers and embroiderers designed and sewed the textiles. Metalsmiths provided gold and copper embellishments. Each piece had a purpose. While the armor was designed first and foremost for protection, the last 200 years of the samurais’ existence was an extended period of peacetime. The armor grew increasingly detailed and elaborate as it was used largely for ceremonial affairs, not combat.

One of the most impressive displays shows the evolution of samurai helmets. The earliest are unadorned and low-rounded, but later examples are increasingly fanciful, with images of flowers and lions made from papier-mâché or light wood. There was a practical reason for the transformation: after the introduction of firearms (brought to Japan by the Portuguese in 1543), samurai frequently found themselves on battlefields cloaked in heavy black smoke. They needed helmets that could readily identify who they were fighting for to lessen the risk of friendly fire.

The series of helmets from the 17th and 18th century in one of the last galleries is the most riveting. One, an elaborate shell-shaped helmet, is made from iron, lacing, and papier-mâché. Another, fashioned from copper, iron, lacquer, and lacing, was inspired the headdresses worn by high-ranking Zen priests. The circular frontal ornament bears the Sanskrit symbol of the deity Fudo myo-O. The most striking is a helmet with a large-scale papier-mâché representation of a scallop shell. Viewed from the front, the helmet does indeed look like an elaborate scallop shell, but from the side, it takes on a completely different configuration, the design suggestive of the base of two fins and a fishtail hitting the water.

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Late 16th- and early 17th-century “Armor of the Okegawado Type."

In the final gallery, visitors will be mesmerized by a magnificent late 16th-, early 17th-century armor and feather ornament titled “Armor of the Okegawado Type.” The accompanying text boasts that the suit and ornament are “nothing short of spectacular,” and it’s not an exaggeration. The ornament, or sashimono, is made of gilded, lacquered paper, representing three feathers. Far too fragile to have been able to survive combat, it is believed to have been worn by a samurai surveying the battlefield or taking part in some sort of ceremony. The armor, in hues of red, gold, brown, and white, is made of iron, lacquer, bear fur, and horsehair. It is a final reminder that in samurai culture, war and artistry went hand in hand.

Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, through Sunday, August 4. The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Admission is free for members or with BU ID, $23 for seniors and students 18 and over, free for age 6 and under, free for youth 7 to 17 weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends, and Boston public school holidays (otherwise $10), and $25 for adults; free to the public on Wednesday evenings. By public transportation, take the Green Line E trolley or the number 39 bus to the Museum of Fine Arts stop or the Orange Line train or bus routes 8, 47, or C2 to the Ruggles stop.

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John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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