Japanese Bronze Helmet
Many items of antiquity raise questions as to their age, origin, ethnogrphic significance, and intended use. This helmet is no exception. Nonetheless, certain relatively reliable conclusions may be drawn:
- Since the inside diameter of the cavity of the helmet is a mere 16 cm., it is entirely too small to be worn on a human head.
- The quality of the patination, both inside and out, appears to indicate that the piece is at least several centuries old.
- The front portion of the 1/16" thick visor had been broken off. Most of the remaining portion had been bent inwards by what appear to have been well-placed hammer blows. This may have been done to prevent being cut by the edge of the fracture. The interesting thing is that patination along the fracture is deep and well developed, indicating that the break probably occured in ancient times.
- The three dimensional detail of its decorations has many undercuts which indicates that the piece was probably made by the lost-wax process.
- The art motif shows waves at the bottom and clouds on the upper portion, with the dragon's form emerging from the water into the clouds - a pure Japanese art motif. The cloud design has several areas of openwork. Was this meant only as part of the decoration, or could it possibly have been to provide some ventilation?
- The style of the dragon's head is unmistakably Japanese.
- The rear 'neck protection' plate is decorated 'stick-bodied dragons (more of a Chinese style than Japanese) and with two Aoi shaped perforations, one on each side, which are pure Japanese in style and are encountered in a multitude of art object types such as tsuba and other sword fittings.
- This rear plate is divided into three separate sub-plates, and I cannot connect this geometry to any other helmet in my experience.
What conclusions can derive from these observations? My guess is that this helmet adorned the figure of some diety or temple guardian and was made quite a bit prior to the Edo period by the lost wax casting process in much the same manner that temple bells were fabricated. If this is so, what diety/guardian was it, where was it installed, and what was the ethnic significance?
Click on pictures for larger views.
The following are responses:
- The cast helmet looks very familiar, I have seen things like this in Japan, but I can not put my finger on it. It does belong to a guardian deity and I seem to recall (like a distant echo) I had seen a figure of Bishamon-ten (Tamonken) wearing this elaborate style of helmet. He is one of the 12 Deva Kings* and is always shown in full armor holding in his right hand a pagoda and in his left hand a lance. This is my opinion, and I stick with it :)
- "I conjecture that it was made, not for a deity, but for a temple guardian figure. The dragon theme is more in keeping with a celestial guardian then with any deity. Also the temple guardian figure would have been shown with arms and armor, as most are.
- Speaking ex-cathedra on the basis of no valid information whatsoever, My take on that helmet would be as follows: Bronze is not a good material for a functional helmet, at least if you have more suitable materials available, which the Japanese obviously had. It is also a very heavy material. Ergo, I would tend to rule out any functional use such as Boys Day armor. It is an archaic shape, so it is at least simulating great age. I do not trust the patina on bronze as an indicator of great age, as that can be artificially created. The stylistic elements to me at least, point to a Japanese origin (See wave treatment on Tsuba, i.e. Omori, Choshu etc.). I also think the crude repairs described were probably done after it left Japan. I doubt that anyone there who valued it would have left it in such a sad state of disrepair.
Conclusions: I suspect that this helmet was originally included in the harness worn by one of those ferocious looking temple guardian statues which were often see on either side of the entrance gates on some Japanese Temples. They are usually seen wearing Indian or Chinese styled Armor, and stylistically, I think it fits. They represent a motif often seen in Japanese metal artwork. It think would probably date from the Edo period.
* Deva Kings. Deva (Sanskrit) "Shining One". Celestial beings, good, bad or indifferent in nature, the Devas may inhabit any of the three worlds. They correspond to the angelic powers of Western theology.
Additional comments are welcome.