Artist not known, Japan
mid-1800s, Edo period
1.563 in x 1.688 in
Gift of Julie Seagraves and Richard Kimball, 1986.468
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
These menuki [meh-NEW-key] were made in the mid-1800s during Japan’s Edo period, a period of over 250 years of peace. Menuki, or sword grip enhancers, were accessories that accompanied a sword and helped a samurai’s grip and hand placement on the sword. Originally, the pieces like these were made by the same artisans who made the sword blade, but by the Edo period, many of these accessories were made by a separate specialist or group of specialists. We don’t know the name of the metalsmith who made these menuki, but it is clear that he had extensive knowledge of how to work was very skilled in working with multiple metals and knew how to create detailed sculptures on a small scale. He made the grip enhancers out of gold, silver, and a metal called shakudo [shah-coo-DOE], which is an alloy (mixture) of gold and copper, and is black colored. Each metal or alloy melts at a different temperature and some metals are easier to shape than others. Such knowledge was only part of what the craftsman had to know in order to make one of these small metal sculptures.
What Inspired It
The craftsman who made these grip enhancers must have wanted to delight the samurai, or warrior and member of the Japanese military aristocracy. The craftsman included many tiny details—details so small they seemed marvelous. Grip enhancers were part of a sword’s fittings. The fittings included the hilt (handle), the scabbard (blade cover), the tsuba (sword guard), and menuki (grip enhancers). Grip enhancers came in pairs and they needed to be small and because they had to fasten onto the sides of the sword hilt, or handle. They were held in place and partially covered by silk braiding that was wrapped around the hilt and over the grip enhancers. Initially, grip enhancers were used to cover bamboo pins (like small pegs), which went through the handle and held the sword blade firmly inside the handle. They also created bumps on the handle that allowed the samurai to get a firmer grip. Eventually, however, they became more important as decoration, and though they would eventually be covered up by a silk cord that wrapped around the hilt, the artist still had to impress the samurai buyer with his miniature sculptures.
A samurai warrior often had several pairs of grip enhancers and each pair signified something about his values and interests. Even though these small art works were almost hidden from view, the owner would know that underneath the silk braiding, there were grip enhancers symbolizing something important to him.
A diagram of a samurai sword’s fittings:
Two examples of sword guards in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
We believe the insects on these grip enhancers are wasps, but they could be another flying insect. Though we have not found any specific reference or meaning assigned to the symbol of a wasp, the fact that they are a stinging insect may make them appropriate for a samurai warrior. The two insects are posed differently–the wings of one wasp are separated while the wings of the other overlap.
During the Edo period, it was common for educated men and women to carry fans. The artist decorated the fans by incising, or cutting into the metal, to create plant designs.
These grip enhancers are made of shakudo, a gold and copper alloy which can be treated to get a purplish-black surface color. The insects are covered with a thin layer of gold. Gold is a malleable metal, meaning it can be hammered into very thin sheets and then shaped by the artist.
These grip enhancers are each 1 3/16” long. It takes great skill to work on such a small scale. Notice the tiny details on the insects–the eyes, antenna, segmented abdomen, and detailed wings.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Depicted in the Menuki are wasps on metal fans. Prompt children to come up with a list of wasp characteristics. Ask them why these may have been important as a symbol on a sword. Then ask children to list the characteristics of a fan and ask why these are important as a symbol.
- Ask students to imagine what it would be like to fly. Ask how a fan would help them do this.
- What symbol would they put on their own samurai sword and why? Have students illustrate these images and write about the importance in their lives.