The Mazarin Chest

Unknownca. 1640 (made) - 1644

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Chest, wood covered in black, gold and silver lacquer, inlaid with gold, silver and shell, and with copper fittings, depicting scenes from the Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Soga Brothers, palaces, landscapes and a tiger among bamboo, Japanese for the export market, ca. 1640

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  • Title: The Mazarin Chest
  • Date Created: ca. 1640 (made) - 1644
  • Location Created: Japan, Asia
  • Type: Chest
  • External Link: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O18900
  • Subjects Depicted: courtiers; landscapes; hunting; Palaces; tigers; bamboo
  • Place Part Of: Asia
  • More Information: The Mazarin Chest is one of the finest pieces of Japanese export lacquer to have survived from the 17th century. Japanese export lacquer was first produced in the late sixteenth century and was quite distinct from domestic wares. It was made in a hybrid style that combined Western forms with techniques and decoration derived from both Japanese and foreign traditions, especially those of China and Korea. During the 1630s, a new style of export lacquer evolved. This was characterised by a small group of objects of exceptionally high quality which showed similarities to lacquer for the home market. It is to this group of export lacquer that the Mazarin Chest belongs. It is assumed that, like other examples of export lacquer, it was either shipped directly to Europe or to an official of the Dutch East India Company serving in the Dutch East Indies. Nothing, however, is known of its early history. The earliest information concerning its provenance derives from the coat of arms of the Mazarin-La Meilleraye family on its French steel key, suggesting that it was once in their possession. Although Westerners would have had no knowledge of Japanese literature, the front and sides of the Mazarin Chest are decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) and The Tale of the Soga Brothers (Soga monogatari). The Tale of Genji is the supreme masterpiece of Japanese prose written in the early eleventh century by a court lady, Murasaki Shikibu. This massive work is divided into fifty-four chapters and its action, based around court life, spans almost three-quarters of a century. It follows the life and loves of Prince Genji and, after his death, the novel continues with the story of his son, Yugiri, and Kaoru, who passes as Genji's son. The right-hand side of the Mazarin Chest is decorated with a scene from the Tale of the Soga Brothers, a tale of filial piety and revenge. The boar-hunt depicted on the side of the Mazarin Chest refers to the revenge of the Soga brothers on their father's murderer. The interior and exterior of the lid of the Mazarin Chest are decorated with scenes of palaces, architectural complexes and landscapes. These are framed by distinctive cartouches formed by pairs of confronting phoenixes on the outsider and confronting dragons on the inside. Compared to all other decorative surfaces of the Mazarin Chest, the back is much more sparsely and simply decorated with a tiger among bamboo. This subject is frequently encountered in Japanese painting of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Mazarin Chest has a companion piece, which is very similar in subject matter and workmanship, but it is somewhat larger in size. It was bought by Sir Trevor Lawrence, a well-known collector of Japanese art. This chest is now referred to as the Lawrence Chest, though its current whereabouts are unknown. There are also two other items of export lacquer that have very close connections with the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests, even though they do not share the same superb techniques of manufacture. One of these was originally another similar chest that was cut up at some later date and partly reworked in the early nineteenth century to form a French Boulle-work cabinet. The 17th century lacquer panels of this bear unmistakable similarities to corresponding parts of the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests, especially in the Genji scenes. The other item is a cabinet from the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin. The panels of these are also extremely close to the exterior and interior of the lids of the Mazarin and Lawrence Chests. Despite the difference in technical execution, all these items of export lacquer reveal certain striking and distinctive similarities that suggest they were made at roughly the same time in the same, as yet, unidentified workshop.
  • Materials and Techniques: Wood covered in black lacquer with gold and silver hiramakie and takamakie lacquer; inlaid with gold, silver and shibuichi alloy; and mother-of-pearl shell; gilded copper fittings
  • Maker: Unknown
  • Dimensions: [Chest] Height: 59 cm, Length: 101.5 cm, Width: 63.9 cm