The Splendour of Japanese Chivalry
The Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection
The samurai dominated Japan’s history for centuries, not just as warriors but as the political élite. Their legends are tales of courage and discipline, loyalty and noble self-sacrifice – interwoven with betrayal, intrigue and ruthless violence. Exquisitely wrought of precious metals and sumptuous materials, their armour was not merely a protective covering, but also an imposing status symbol.
Over a period spanning more than 30 years, Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller built up an outstanding collection of samurai armour, along with helmets and masks, horse tack and weaponry dating from the 7th to the 19th century, which is now being presented in Germany for the first time. Featuring in excess of 100 objects, the exhibition brings the fascinating history of Japanese chivalry to life.
What makes a man a warrior? A master of combat techniques, the samurai owned weapons and lived according to high ethical values. However, one thing in particular made him stand out: his armour. The quality of his armour meant the difference between life and death; it had to offer both protection and freedom of movement, while serving to identify the warrior on the battleground. To this day, it showcases the fascinating range of materials deployed by the samurai in balancing the interplay of attack and defence in combat. Skilfully crafted metals, leather, wood, lacquer and textiles afforded physical protection. The armour was embellished with a wide variety of forms and motifs – symbols of protection designed to terrify the enemy, such as demons, dragons or other mythological creatures, wild animals, Buddhist protective deities and star constellations, auspicious plants or symbols representing luck, courage
and a long life. However, the fact that extravagant suits of armour, masks and helmets with elaborate ornamentation were also popular in times of peace attests to their equally important representative function: during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603–1868), armour progressively emerged as a status symbol of the élite.
For almost 700 years, the samurai shaped the history of Japan. When the shogun assumed the executive power from the tennō, or Emperor of Japan, as supreme military commander at the end of the 12th century, the aristocratic warrior class replaced the nobility as the country’s.