Worcester Art Museum Explores Legends and Lore of Samurai Spirit

WORCESTER, Mass., March 12, 2003 - The heroic exploits and cultured lifestyles of Japan's legendary warriors come to life in Samurai Spirit, a Worcester Art Museum exhibition on view April 4 through June 22.

Samurai Spirit features colorful woodblock prints, albums, screens, helmets, armor and arms, Zen paintings and tea ware. While largely drawn from the Worcester Art Museum's Japanese art collection, the exhibition of 131 objects also features works on loan from the Higgins Armory Museum, the Springfield Museums, the Brown University Library (The Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection), and private collections.

The warrior influence on Japanese values and culture has historically been very strong. For more than 1,000 years, the samurai were considered the finest expression of the Japanese character. Works in the exhibition span five centuries and explore many aspects of samurai life, from famous battles and acts of heroism to meditation and artistic expression.

Samurai abided by a strict military code that advocated martial training and stressed Confucian virtues of loyalty and filial piety to the sh_gun, warlords and family. Exhibiting fearless bravery, samurai were always ready to face death on the battlefield. They were also prepared to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, for example, to avoid being captured alive by the enemy, make amends for failure, or as a demonstration of loyalty by following one's lord in death.

Many samurai practiced Zen meditation to attain a calm, clear mind. It is also evident from the decorations on armor, helmets and weapons on display, as well as from prints and paintings, that samurai had for centuries placed their faith in the forces of nature and powerful beasts, such as heavenly planets, dragons and tigers. They also prayed to Shint_ and Buddhist dieties, such as the God of War Hachiman and the wrathful, sword-bearing Fud_ My__. Especially during peaceful times, samurai had time to practice the arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting. They also participated in the highly structured art of the tea ceremony with its formalized movements and manners. Compassion and impeccable behavior were essential complementary "feminine" virtues.

Much of the Samurai Spirit exhibition is composed of intricate and historically accurate 18th- and 19th-century woodblock prints and albums, chronicling the adventures and battles of famous warriors from the 10th through the 19th centuries. Early warriors, such as Taira Masakado, who tried to establish himself as new emperor in the 10th century, tested their power by rebelling in the provinces. A popular tragic hero from the 12th century, Minamoto Yoshitsune is believed to have learned swordsmanship and military strategy from tengu, mythical crow-like beings. After defeating the Taira-clan, Yoshitsune was forced to commit suicide by his jealous half-brother. During the tumultuous late 14th through 16th centuries, ruthless warriors, such as Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, "the best of enemies," ignored the central government and strove to become powerful feudal lords. In addition to being devout Buddhists, they raised enormous armies of spear-wielding foot soldiers and conquered many provinces.

A selection of helmets, armor, weapons, screens, calligraphic Zen paintings and simple yet refined tea-ware reflect the content of the prints. The exhibition includes a saddle, stirrups, dagger, spear, swords and a matchlock musket. A masterpiece helmet, signed My_chin Nobuie and dated 1519, from the Springfield Museums' George Walter Vincent Smith Collection, is crafted with a red-lacquered bowl and flaring neck-guard. The Higgins Armory Museum has loaned a sea conch shell helmet by My_chin Mitsumasa, dated 1618, and a tall "court-cap" helmet decorated with dragons flying amidst clouds.

A complete suit of samurai armor crafted by the 25th generation armor-maker My_chin Munemasa (1688-1740), in the Worcester Art Museum collection, stands as a centerpiece in the exhibition. Flower-diamond crests on the helmet suggest the possibility that it was made for Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, a key figure in the events following the early 18th-century vendetta of the "Loyal 47 Ronin," which has been the subject of numerous films, Kabuki plays and woodblock prints. Asano Naganori of Ak_, an inexperienced daimy_ (feudal lord) was provoked to draw his sword in the Edo (Tokyo) court and slightly wounded the Court Master of Ceremonies Lord Kira Yoshinaka. As penance for this capital offense, Lord Asano was forced to perform seppuku. Out of a traditional sense of obligation to avenge their master's death, 47 of Asano's loyal retainers carried out a night attack on Kira's mansion and carried his severed head to Asano's grave at Sengaku-ji. It is said that the sh_gun, upon the advice of his grand chamberlain and chief of intelligence Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714), ordered them to commit seppuku.

From 1603 to 1868, the Edo Period, Japan enjoyed peaceful times. The hard-won victories of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyoshi had unified Japan. During this time, the samurai were a military aristocracy assured an allowance and/or fief from the shogunate in return for their sworn, unconditional fidelity until death. High-ranking samurai built lavish mansions and commissioned dramatic screens. In Samurai Spirit, a tiger-symbolic of bravery and worldly power-glares at the viewer from a screen painted by Kan_ Naonobu (1607-50).

The ideal warrior during the Edo Period was one who mastered the two-fold "Way of the Sword and the Brush." The enlightened mind achieved through Zen meditation enabled creative expression through the perfection of martial arts as well as through aesthetic pursuits: poetry, calligraphy and paintings, often mounted as hanging scrolls or on screens. Zen paintings and calligraphy by monks and swordsmen are included in the exhibition. The monk Takuj_ (1760-1833) painted a portrait of Bodhidharma (Daruma; 5th-6th century), the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism. Tessh_ (1836-88) is represented by a six-fold calligraphic screen. Skilled with the brush, sword and spear, Tessh_ paradoxically revived the "sword-less school" of no combat, believing that it was possible to resolve conflicts through negotiations.

As the role of the samurai diminished in the 18th and 19th centuries, nostalgia for past glory and heroism increased. Wealthy provincial feudal lords commissioned armor makers and metal artisans to restore or copy ancient samurai armor and weapons, often embellishing them with fittings engraved and inlaid with gold and silver and new alloys. Many publishers profited by publishing illustrated, classic war chronicles and encyclopedic books, for example, of how to dress in armor, the names of various armor parts, stenciled leather patterns and family crests. A few such books, from the Brown University Library (The Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection), are included in the exhibit. Nineteenth-century woodblock artists, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Kunisada and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, studied these books and designed prints addressing the growing public demand for scenes that brought past heroic warriors to life. The increasingly literate audience identified with samurai who fought until death for their ideals against impossible odds.

Experiencing a link with venerated ancestors provided the Japanese people with a sense of identity and national history as Japan was threatened by the arrival of westerners. The new Meiji government, installed after the imperial restoration of 1867-68, promoted the adoption of western technology, government, social customs, and military warfare. Samurai became classified as ordinary subjects and in 1876 even lost the right to carry swords. The Satsuma rebellion led by Saig_ Takamori in 1877, illustrated in contemporary prints, was a last desperate attempt of the samurai to protest against the radical changes. A few years later, military conscription deprived the samurai of the rest of their privileges.

About the Curator
Dr. Louise E. Virgin joined the Worcester Art Museum in January 2002 as the curator of Asian art. An expert in Japanese art, she was assistant curator of later Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in her native Stockholm, Sweden, and worked as assistant to the Keeper of Japanese prints at The Art Institute of Chicago. She earned her B.A. from Smith College, and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

This exhibition is sponsored by UnumProvident Corporation, The Blakemore Foundation and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Additional support provided by 90.9 WBUR.

About the Worcester Art Museum
The Worcester Art Museum is located at 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Mass. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and full-time college students with current ID, and FREE for Members and all youth 17 and under. Admission is also FREE for everyone on Saturday mornings, 10 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (508) 799-4406 or visit the Museum web site at www.worcesterart.org.


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