Suit of Armor and Helmet

18th century

Object

Artist

Juryo Mitsumasa, Japanese, blank
Haruta Katsumitsu, Japanese, blank

Object Info

Object: suit of armor
Not currently on view
Object ID: 1978.225.1-12

Medium/Technique

iron, silver, lacquer, leather and silk

Credit

Anonymous Gift

About

About the Artist

This samurai suit of armor was made by multiple Japanese artisans in the 1700s. The armor consists of over 740,000 individual pieces made of a slew of different materials, including silver, iron, lacquer (a clear varnish), leather, silk, and ivory. Many of these materials would have required specialized skills and would have been made by separate workshops. Though we do not know the names of all of the artisans who contributed to this elaborate suit, two of them signed their work: the helmet was signed by Juryo Mitsumasa and the breastplate by Haruta Katsumitsu. The fact that these men had surnames (the surname, or family name, comes before one’s given name in Japan) and were allowed to sign their names to their work indicates their importance; ordinary craftsmen were allowed neither.

This suit of armor was crafted during the Edo Period, a period of over 250 years of peace in Japan. The armor was not intended for actual use. By the time of its construction, war had not been a part of Japanese life for more than a century. During this period, samurai (professional warriors) had to find a way of life that didn’t include war. The owner of this armor would have worn the suit only during ceremonies; otherwise he would have displayed it prominently in his home.

What Inspired It

This suit of armor was inspired by the romantic world of the samurai warrior, a world that, by the 1700s, was a thing of the past. The samurai who ordered or bought this suit admired the samurai warriors of the past and their ideals of faithfulness, loyalty, devotion, and dedication. This suit of armor has many of the traditional elements that older suits might have had and was, therefore, a sign of respect for the past. The armor balances details of delicacy and ferocity. It is decorated with flowers, vines, and leaves. The face mask, however, is designed to inspire fear. It hides the face of the person wearing it, making him appear strong and impenetrable. The red lacquer surface on the inside of the mask may have given a fierce reddish cast to the face and eyes of the wearer.

A samurai was not merely a warrior, however; he was expected to excel in the arts of civilized life as well. “Practice the arts of war on the right hand and the arts of peace on the left,” went a famous samurai saying. In addition to being skillful warriors, samurai knew poetry and calligraphy (artistic lettering). They also practiced the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony, which involves specific rituals that are performed for preparing and serving tea in an atmosphere of deep calm and respect.

Leaves and Flowers
Leaves and Flowers

The delicate leaves on the metal chin are paulownia leaves. The paulownia leaf is a family crest and would be used to decorate everything from the suit of armor to a lady’s cosmetic box. Note also the samurai’s taste for delicacy in the delicate flower on a branch that sits on the side of the mouth.

Chest Plate
Chest Plate

This samurai wore an image of a dragon in the middle of his chest. Note the long, curling whiskers, bristly mustache, and eyebrows. The technique used to create the dragon is called repoussé [reh-poo-SAY] and involves hammering the iron from behind.

Mail
Mail

Mail is flexible armor made of interlinked metal rings. Even the mail, which protects the wearer’s arms, is elaborate. It is made by thousands of circles of iron wire linked together in an intricate pattern. Underneath the mail is flower-patterned blue silk.

Neck Guard
Neck Guard

One common form of attack during battle was a sword stroke from above; the neck guard protected against this blow. The neck guard is made of lacquered iron pieces laced together with off-white silk cord. Several hundred yards of this silk cord, hand-braided and carefully dyed, were needed to make a suit of armor, making silk one of the most important components in the armor.

Teaching Resources

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.