The beauty of lacquerware

Kyoto National Museum

The beauty of lacquerware
Makie, which involves the use of expensive lacquer and gold and silver powder, is a very luxurious means of decoration. Just a handful of such ancient and medieval lacquerware, which adorned the lives of the nobility or were used for Buddhist or Shinto worship, remains today. Japanese lacquered religious goods and export items were exported to Europe after they caught the eye of missionaries and merchants who arrived in Japan aboard Spanish and Portuguese vessels during the Momoyama period (1573-1615). The Kyoto National Museum’s collection includes many exquisite lacquerware furnishings.

Toiletry Case with Pines and Camellias in Makie From the Sacred Treasures of Asuka Shrine

In Shinto, it is believed that renewing the shrine where the deity resides along with all the furnishing and utensils is to restore life force to that deity. This is why deities are periodically installed in a new shrine and given new sacred objects.

An entry in Kumanosan Shingū shinpō mokuroku (Inventory of Shrine Treasures at the shrines in the Kumano mountains; Edo-period copy in the Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine with postscript, dated 1390 [Meitoku 1]), records this box as one of thirteen toiletry cases donated to Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine (Wakayama prefecture) by the emperor, the retired emperor, the Muromachi shogun (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu), and various local lords. Handed down as one of the sacred treasures of Asuka Shrine, a subsidiary shrine of Kumano Hayatama Grand Shrine, it was acquired by the Japanese government in modern times. Among the items belonging to the group, the Kyoto National Museum also stores other lacquered pieces in makie (sprinkled metal design) including boxes for a crown, an official’s wooden sceptre (shaku), robes, shoes, and a clothes rack.
The case contains two nested boxes; the larger is lined with brocade and the smaller decorated with makie. Inside are gold and silverplated bronze items: boxes for incense articles, tooth-blackening utensils, white-face powder, chrysanthemum-shaped dishes, scissors, tweezers, brushes for blackening teeth, eyebrow brushes, ear picks, hairpins, a brush for cleaning combs, and a wide-toothed comb. In addition, it holds a white porcelain dish, a nickel mirror, and a makie comb case containing twenty-nine combs.

Although made as offerings to the gods, we can assume that these pieces reflect the cosmetic items used by the medieval aristocracy.The toiletry case, comb case, and their contentsare all decorated with pine and camellia trees growing on mounds of earth. As symbols of vitality, evergreen trees were often used as motifs on votive items. This toiletry set is fabulously elaborate, the outside of the case decorated with highly-skilled techniques like raised-gold decoration (kintakamakie) on a pear-skin ground of densely-sprinkled particles (tsume nashiji), burnished decoration (togidashi makie), in which a design is revealed by polishing through upper layers of lacquer, aokin kanagai (thin inlaid sheets of cut silver-gold), and tiny silver rivets.

Inkstone Case with Poetic Scene of Shio no Yama in Makie
15th Century

Although the Japanese sometimes followed the Chinese example of keeping an inkstone separately, it was often stored together with a water dropper, inkstick, brush, penknife, and awl in a special box. Such boxes developed in response to the Japanese living space, which was based on Heian-period aristocratic residences (shinden), where various activities including meals, reading, writing, and dressing all took place in one room, and instead of fixed furniture they devised a variety of portable boxes. The inkstone case contains the essential items of Japanese stationery.

The case is decorated with plovers playing along a shoreline, but it is far from a simple landscape motif. Script scattered about the picture quotes lines from a poem in Kokin wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry): “The plovers on the jutting crags beneath briny Shio Mountain cry out, ‘May the years of your life number eight thousand and more.’” It is fair to say that up through the medieval period, no Japanese lacquerware was without meaning or landscape depiction, and even where there was no script, educated owners understood the significance of the motifs.

The large number of highly complex makie (sprinkled pictorial design) techniques used on this piece make it a wonderful example of Muromachi-period lacquer art: these include nashiji (pear-skin ground, in which metal flakes are scattered to create a speckled surface), ikakeji (densely sprinkled gold or silver powder),
gold hiramakie (“flat” densely sprinkled metal decoration ), gold togidashimakie (burnished decoration), gold sabiage takamakie (raised lacquerwork using a paste known as sabi), silver kanagai (thin inlaid sheets of silver), kirikane (small cuttings from thin sheets of gold and silver), tsukegaki ( fine raised lines), kakiwari (line details left bare), and inlaid carved silver. The wave design inside the box, as well as the inkstone, and the brush-rack were probably added in the Edo period. This work formerly belonged to the family of Viscount Tsuchiya.

Stationery Set with Black Pines and Deer in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
18th century

Using decorative techniques of nashiji (pearskin ground), hiramakie (flat sprinkle metal decoration), raden (mother-of-pearl inlay), and inlaid tin plate, the inkstone case depicts a male and female deer resting at the water’s edge, while the stationery box shows a pair of deer and black pines growing on an earthy mound. In both cases, the motifs are highly stylised, creating a striking impact through the beautiful combination of diverse materials.

The composition also exploits the entire surface of the piece, extending from the lid down the sides of the body to the bottom. The inside of the stationary-box lid has a huge full moon rendered in silver plate that shines through the branches of a pine tree on an earthy bank. Around this, in tin-plated script, is a verse from the tenth-century antholog y Kokin wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry): “The autumn moon shines brilliantly upon the mountain range to show us the very number of the fallen colored leaves.” The inside of the inkstone-case cover and the interior of the case are decorated solely with black pines.

We know relatively little about the artist Nagata Yūji, only that he was active in the Shōtoku and Kyōhō eras (first half of the eighteenth century) and hugely admired Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), signing himself ‘disciple of Seisei’ (a reference to Kōrin). The undersides of both the inkstone case and the stationery box bear the signature ‘Seiseishi’ and the artist’s seal. Although there are other extant works with this signature and seal, none match the scale of this tour-de-force, which can be considered Yūji’s great masterpiece.

Pyx with Camellias and IHS Insignia in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century

This is a container for Holy Communion wafers. Symbolising the body of Christ, the communion wafer is handed out to believers by the priest during Catholic mass. It holds a smaller nested box and bears the three letters “IHS” on top of the lid, executed in gold hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration) and raden (inlaid mother-ofpearl) on a black lacquered ground. On the sides these same techniques are combined with enashiji (pictorial pear-skin ground, where gold flakes are sprinkled over specific motifs) to depict camellias.

The IHS insignia representing the name of Jesus surrounded by a halo (or perhaps a crown of thorns) and combined with a cross rising from the horizontal of the ‘H’ and a heart pierced by three nails was the emblem of the Jesuit Society, which reached Japan in 1549. The lacquer in makie work on the lid is unfortunately very badly damaged; most of its surface appears to be later restoration work.

Although Nanban lacquer portable altars containing religious images, and lecterns to hold Bibles, were made in considerable numbers for wealthy believers, items such as this pyx were utilised only by the priest and therefore not so numerous. This is a very rare item; only a dozen or so exist around the world.

Folding Lectern with IHS Insignia and Linked Hexagrams in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century

This folding lectern to hold a Bible bears the Jesuit emblem. Several lacquered lecterns in makie (sprinkled metal design) with IHS insignia are known, but the designs surrounding the emblem differ.

This piece is decorated with a geometric design: a chequerboard border enclosing a hexagram lattice structure with interlinked circles and a floral motif, executed in mother-of-pearl inlay and hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration) of fine gold powder resembling gold and silver paintwork. On the reverse of the book-support is a design of orange blossoms incorp orating enashiji (pictorial pear-skin) decoration; the back of the lectern has borders of Nanban arabesques enclosing tightly packed kudzu vine scrolls on the back panel and morning glories on the legs. Folding stands carved out of a single piece of timber like this are not found in the Japanese carpentry tradition, leading to the conclusion that the structure is taken from Muslim lecterns of the Islamic world.

The existence of a lectern in the same shape and construction inlaid with Indian silverwork and another adorned with Chinese metal-leaf decoration suggest that people who had seen Islamic lecterns travelled to Japan and directed the production of the current piece in makie and mother-of-pearl inlay. This item gives us a vivid picture of seaborne commerce in the Great Age of Navigation.

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Opened
16-17th Century

After the mid-sixteenth century, a steady stream of European missionaries and traders began arriving in Japan. Dubbed nanbanjin, or ‘Southern Barbarians’, these Europeans commissioned Japanese artisans to decorate Christian religious objects and Western-style furniture with makie lacquer, and then exported these objects or took them back to their home countries. Such export items are known as Nanban lacquerware.

This item is a portable Christian altar containing a religious painting intended to be displayed on a wall. This type of portable altar would normally contain a removable framed image, but in this case, it has been painted in oil directly onto the lacquered back panel. In order to express the doctrine of the Trinity—the oneness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three male figures with identical faces are portrayed; God the Father is identified by a sun on his chest, his son Jesus by a lamb, and the Holy Spirit by a dove.

Images of this kind were hardly ever produced in Europe, as the Catholic church considered it heretical to present these three entities as human beings of the same age with identical facial features, but in the New World, specifically in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico), this clear, comprehensible imagery was accepted, and these images are believed to have been created in large numbers from the seventeenth century onwards. Since pieces with very similar iconography survive in Mexico, we can assume that this oil painting was executed there, during or after the seventeenth century.

The portable altar itself is a very simple rectangular shape with no gable or additional elements. Gold and silver hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration), nashiji (pear-skin ground) and raden (inlaid mother-of-pearl) are used on a black lacquer surface to depict longtailed birds amongst bush clover and camellias on the outside of the doors, and bold grape-vine arabesques on the inside of the doors. The inlaid mother-of-pearl geometric patterns commonly found on Nanban lacquerware do not appear at all.

This simple form with large makie motifs has much in common with pieces such as the portable altar in the Tokyo National Museum containing an image of Saint Stephen in feathermosaic (native Mexican bird-feather collage), and an altar discovered in Puerto Rico, now owned by Taiheiyo Cement. This is one of the very rare examples of an item thought to have been carried on a Spanish boat via the Philippines to Mexico.

Decanter Set with Birds and Flowers in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; The Chest
17th Century

This is a piece of so-called Nanban lacquerware, made to order for European clients. There are several other extant square decanters, but this is the only surviving set of six. They have been preserved in extremely good condition, thanks to storage in this custom-made chest, although the exterior of the box has undergone considerable restoration work in Europe. The inside is divided into six compartments separated by coniferous wood panels lined with Japanese paper with stylized cloud patterns. Those protect the makie design from chafing when the decanters are taken in and out. Each face of the decanters is decorated with various flower and bird motifs in a combination of enashiji (pictorial pear-skin ground) and inlaid mother-of-pearl, bordered by gold Nanban scrolls in hiramakie (flat sprinkled meral) on a black lacquer ground.

According to scholars of trading records, the 1618-diary of the head of the British Trading Mission in Hirado states that a single box containing several bottles was packaged for transport, whilst the Dutch East India Company documents note that a partitioned box containing several bottles, which could not be sold in Holland, was sent from the Batavia government office to the Hirado Trading House in 1634. However, three years later, in 1637, an order was placed for thirty to forty similar items destined for Indian Coromandel, indicating that this type product was extremely popular in India in the early seventeenth century.

One of the decanter lids is missing, whilst another cannot be removed. The lids come in the form of copper screw; the Japanese first learned the technique of making these lids from tail valves on muskets brought to the country by the Portuguese. Although the screw lids on these pieces are unsophisticated, they represent the most advanced technology of their day.

Decanter Set with Birds and Flowers in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; The Decanters
17th Century

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