About the Exhibition

Travel back in time and discover the life, culture, and pageantry of the revered and feared Japanese samurai warriors through more than 140 remarkable objects from one of the best and largest collections in the world. Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection features the extraordinary artistry of the armor used by samurai—the military elite led by the shoguns, or warlords, of Japan from the 12th through 19th centuries. The exhibition illustrates the evolution of the distinctive appearance and equipment of the samurai through the centuries and examines the warriors’ history through works of consummate craftsmanship and exquisite design. Among the highlights of the exhibition are warriors’ helmets of lacquered metal, adorned with emblems often inspired by nature, which signaled the status of the wearer, differentiated samurai from each other, and frightened the enemy on the battlefield. Combat-ready samurai in full regalia will be shown in suits of intricately crafted armor on similarly armored steeds. The exhibition also includes beautifully designed accoutrements used for both battle and ceremonies. 

Samurai Armor    See more images

Japanese armor is striking, refined, and highly functional. The techniques used by Japanese armorers evolved through the centuries. Made for war, armor protected the samurai who wore it, adorning and honoring those who fought and died in combat. Later, in times of peace, it became a source of pride—a symbol of pomp and status in parades, ceremonies, and processions. The power of samurai armor is in its details: functionally, even the smallest component had its purpose.

Samurai armor consists of a helmet (kabuto), mask (mengu), and chest armor (dō) paired with shoulder guards, sleeves, a skirt, thigh protection, and shin guards. Additional articles, including a surcoat (jinbaori), complete the set, which might weigh between twenty and forty-five pounds. Many materials were required to produce a Japanese armor that was as beautiful as it was functional. Iron, leather, brocade, and precious and semi-precious metals were often used. Several artisans worked for many months to create a samurai suit of armor.

Today, few suits have survived with all of their original components. Older elements were often incorporated into newer armor, and the laces destroyed by moisture were replaced. Sets were also handed down from father to son.

The Evolution of Helmets    See more images

Kamakura- and Nanbokuchō-period helmets had a low and rounded helmet bowl (ōboshi). They were made up of several iron plates held together with visible or hidden rivets. Certain helmets known as suji kabuto were designed with protruding edges. As the years passed, many helmets were modified with unique ornamentation.

After the introduction of firearms, black smoke blanketed many battlefields, causing confusion for the troops. So they could be more readily identified, samurai began to wear helmets with elaborate ornaments at the front, back, or sides. Made of papier-mâché or light wood in outlandish shapes, the ornaments stood out, marking the commanding officers. This became a particular characteristic of the “present-day equipment” (tōsei gusoku) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Samurai and His Horse   See more images

Statuettes discovered in tombs indicate that Japanese warriors relied on horses as early as the Kofun period (AD 250–538). When provincial lords took up arms to defend their territories and govern the nation, battle became more frequent. The samurai proved to be excellent mounted archers. There were many battles in the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1392–1573) periods. Mounts played a key role in military strategy and facilitated travel. Later, when battles involved thousands of men, many warriors fought on foot, while the samurai who led the troops were always on horseback.

Vital in wartime, horses were also important in the peaceful Edo period (1615–1868). The animals conveyed the prestige and power of their owners during parades, processions, and ceremonies. Riding on magnificent mounts and wearing their most striking armor, samurai displayed their status and wealth. Only samurai of a particular rank were permitted to ride. Equestrian training continued to be part of Japanese military practice, just as it was when warriors fought on horseback. 

Armor in Times of Peace    See more images

The Edo period was a time of peace implemented by the Tokugawa shogunate. Unbeknownst to the samurai, these peaceful times would prove lasting. Always ready for combat, they kept their privileged status but became bureaucrats rather than active warriors. Though still functional, armor became a leading symbol of pageantry and prestige. 

Samurai would dress in full armor and carry weapons for parades and the mandatory biannual processions between their home provinces and Edo (Tokyo). Time and money were invested in creating pieces of great artistic refinement, since the size and splendor of the convoys reflected the daimyo’s status. Without wars or outside influence and in memory of an epic warrior past, the ōyoroi and dōmaru types of armor regained their importance.