|| exhibitions

Warriors of the Himalayas main exhibition || Introduction

by Julie Rauer

Horse Armor
Ersatz lacquer horse armor, the unique marriage of varnished leather and iron lamellae, resilient and luminous with layers of gold leafed lotus and peony blossoms, shellac (the insect derivative, not true lacquer from the sap of trees), and tung oil glaze, exemplifies the breadth of technique and artistic invention inherent in Tibetan arms and armor, long discounted as unsophisticated, generic types or overlooked entirely by those wholly unaware of its existence. Blanketed by strong associations of modern day pacifism in tandem with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s teachings, Tibetan history is at the same time rife with warfare, riddled with conflict spanning the seventh through mid-twentieth centuries—a context which imbues each object with intense paradoxical undercurrents.



Conjured from the maelstrom of eight tumultuous centuries, astonishingly intact and heavily encrusted with dragons, vegetal scrollwork, abstracted flames, clouds, and the monster mask tsi pa ta, over 130 expertly crafted weapons of brutal warfare and elaborate ceremony have been brought together for the first time at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which from April 5-July 2, 2006 is presenting a laudably comprehensive, inspired survey of traditional weapons and armor from, ironically, the womb of Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan plateau. Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, is at once a passionate ode to the warlike spirit and force of arms of the Tibetans and also a dazzling showcase of exquisite technique and command of decorative materials.

Exhilarating in the sheer range of components adorning leather and iron, the principal elements decorating Tibetan weaponry, the works in the exhibition attest to the facility of artisans to seamlessly incorporate a staggering range of materials into their creations—wood, leather, iron, copper alloys, gold, silver, animal hair and skin, myriad gemstones, and textiles. Four Matching Elements of Horse Armor (Tibetan or Mongolian, 15th-17th century) sprout a cascade of red yak hair; an elaborate Saddle (Chinese for the Tibetan market, 17th-18th century), remarkably similar to imperial Chinese saddles and comparable to one made for emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-96), is paved with beautifully integrated segments of silk, wood, ivory, coral, gold, silver, iron, hair, leather, pigments, and tin; the exquisitely detailed Three Jewels motif (Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, wheel, and lotus) on the Quiver and Arrows (Tibetan, 17th-18th century) is almost lost amongst the full set of gloriously feathered cane or bamboo arrows; ray skin imparts an eerie feeling of marine life abruptly halted in a distinctly animated Sword (Tibetan, probably 19th-early 20th century) that still breathes.


Quiver and Arrows

Set of Saddle,
Tack, and Sword

From lamellar armor (crafted from horizontal rows of diminutive overlapping plates connected by leather lacing) and helmets, to cane shields, neck and breast defense for horses, swords, scabbards, bridles, stirrups, harness fittings, and saddles, the Tibetan works on view have been thoughtfully selected for structural and historical interest, cross-cultural significance, and refinement of surface adornment. Iron objects are of particular interest, ushering in a wondrous spectrum of decorating techniques, including pierced work, inlay, damascening, engraving with gold and silver, chiseling, and embossing—often used in conjunction, to dramatic visual effect.

Multiplate Helmet

Pair of Stirrups

Jarring study in contrasts, the exhibition eloquently speaks of the aesthetic and functional duality of meticulously decorated arms and armor created for warfare and eventually, later in the twentieth century, preserved for ceremonial use—the poignancy of a helmet’s floral scrollwork and finely realized lotus petals obscured by the blood of enemies fallen in battle. Exemplified by the forbidding Multi-Plate Helmet of Forty-Two Lames (possibly Tibetan, Mongolian, or Chinese, 15th century), impenetrable iron dome damascened in delicate gold and silver blossoms, the depth, history, conflict, and artistry of Tibetan culture is truly encapsulated. In Jekyll and Hyde strokes of unforgiving violence and whimsical imagination, the galleries virtually pulsate from the visceral power of the dichotomy of war and art. Two sets of Tibetan armor for a horse and cavalryman, life-sized models of man and beast, are imperious and resplendent, fully equipped for war—unforgiving, brutal, and mythic, a human-equine serpent scaled with iron plates. Yet on close examination to reward searching gentle eyes, on either side of the slot for stirrup leathers, tiny dragon heads are chiseled in finest relief.


© April 10, 2006 by Julie Rauer

Warriors of the Himalayas main exhibition || Introduction || exhibitions