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The Exotic Dragonfly Helmet

Posted on by Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Japan, Dragonfly-shaped helmet, 17th century, iron, lacquer, wood, leather, gilt pigments, silk, papier-mâché. The James Ford Bell Foundation Endowment for Art Acquisition and gift of funds from Siri and Bob Marshal, 2012.31.1a-c

DURING THE POLITICALLY TURBULENT fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Japan, feudal lords struggled to secure their domains from rival clans. They amassed sizable armies whose effectiveness depended on being properly armed and outfitted. Creating so many helmets and armors prompted craftsmen to fashion simpler designs. Helmets with fewer iron plates replaced the earlier multi-plate (suji-bachi) helmets. Also, the import and imitation of matchlock firearms from Europe made helmets with smooth surfaces preferable because they better deflected musket balls. At the same time, high-ranking lords began to embellish their helmets with sculptural forms so they could be easily located on the battlefield. Exotic helmets (kawari kabuto) allowed leaders to choose symbolic motifs that reflected their personalities.

The MIA recently acquired a superb example of an exotic helmet in the shape of a giant dragonfly. Craftsmen covered the underlying iron bowl with papier-mâché over a wooden framework to form the body of the insect, and covered it with lacquer. Wooden wings flare to the sides, while the insect’s eyes are rendered as large golden orbs. In Japan, the dragonfly symbolizes focused endeavor and vigilance because of its manner of moving up, down, and sideways while continuing to face forward. Ancient texts refer to Japan as Akitsushima (Island of the Dragonflies), because of their abundance. They were thought to be the spirits of rice, because they were often seen hovering above the flooded rice fields.

The MIA’s helmet suggests the flamboyance and imagination of Japanese craftsmen and their warrior patrons. It is also an instructive counterpoint to the equally impressive but more conservative multi-plate helmet that is part of the museum’s spectacular seventeenth-century suit of Japanese armor.

—Matthew Welch, PhD, MIA Deputy Director

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