Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Decoration of Tibetan Arms and Armor

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  • Decorative Techniques and Materials
    The materials and techniques used to decorate arms and armor from Tibet cover a broad range. The primary structural materials are iron and leather, frequently used in combination with gold, silver, copper alloys, and wood, and often incorporating turquoise, coral, yak hair, and various textiles. The techniques most often employed to decorate objects made principally of iron include damascening, inlay, engraving with gold and silver, pierced work, chiseling, and embossing. These techniques can be used alone but are more frequently combined (1999.118).


    The degree of ornamentation and the range of symbols found on Tibetan arms and armor can vary considerably, but generally the same decorative motifs found on other Tibetan objects and works of art, such as furniture, ritual implements, sculpture, and paintings, are seen on arms and armor.

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    Damascening (also called overlay) is by far the most common technique used on iron in Tibet. It is done by scoring or crosshatching an iron surface with a pattern of fine lines, usually within the borders of an engraved design. Gold or silver wires are then laid over the crosshatching and rubbed with a burnishing tool to adhere the wires to the iron ground. Wires laid side-by-side and properly burnished can produce the effect of a continuous sheet of gold or silver (2004.402).


    Inlay involves inserting gold, silver, or copper wires into the grooves engraved into the surface of the iron for that purpose. True inlay, however, is rarely found on Himalayan ironwork, damascening being the preferred technique.

    Engraving consists of incising a design into a metal surface using punches, chisels, or other specialized engraving tools (1997.18).

    Mercury gilding (also called fire gilding) is frequently used for applying a thin layer of gold to objects made of silver, bronze, or copper alloys, but seems not to occur before the late nineteenth or early twentieth century on Tibetan objects made of iron. In mercury gilding, a paste (called an amalgam) is made from gold mixed with mercury. This paste is applied to a metal surface that has been coated with a thin layer of copper or copper sulfate. The surface is then heated until the mercury evaporates, which fixes the gold to the surface. In a relatively rare variation on this technique, an iron surface is damascened with a layer of silver, and then mercury gilding is applied over the silver (1997.18).

    Pierced work refers to intricately pierced patterns created in an iron surface with punches and files. It is used on relatively flat panels and on very complex surfaces such as saddle plates, and is often combined with chiseling and damascening (1997.214.1; 2005.73a).

    Leatherworking techniques include painted and tooled leather and leather appliqués. Most impressive, however, is the use of gold leaf and pigmented shellacs applied over leather to simulate the appearance of lacquer, which is used to great effect on horse armor (2005.73a), leather arm defenses, and on bow cases and quivers (1997.242a-c).

    Decorative Symbols and Iconography
    The degree of ornamentation and the range of symbols found on Tibetan arms and armor can vary considerably, but generally the same decorative motifs found on other Tibetan objects and works of art, such as furniture, ritual implements, sculpture, and paintings, are seen on arms and armor. While these motifs can have deep religious or iconographic significance, on secular objects they usually serve simply as protective and auspicious symbols, and as signs of Buddhist piety.

    The most prevalent form of decoration consists of a wide variety of scrollwork (2008.291), which can range in appearance from leafy tendrils to stylized clouds to flame patterns. Scrollwork can be used as the sole design feature, but it more often serves as the background for other motifs, particularly dragons, which are perhaps the single most frequently used motif (1999.118). Nearly as popular as the dragon is a type of monster mask known in Tibetan as tsi pa tra or by its Sanskrit name kirttimukha. It is found throughout Tibet, China, India, and Indonesia, where it is used as a sign of good fortune and to ward off evil (2002.225). A closely related motif has a very similar mask, but joined to the body of a winged creature, which represents the khyung or garuda, a mythical bird that protects against serpents and illnesses.

    Other important and frequently encountered designs come from the group known as the Eight Auspicious Symbols, which consist of the endless knot, lotus, umbrella, conch shell, wheel, victory banner, vase, and pair of golden fish. These can appear individually or in groups, as central design features or as subtle accents on virtually any type of Tibetan object, from the most humble utilitarian item to the most elaborate ritual object or painting. Also frequently used is a motif resembling a flaming jewel, which generally takes one of three forms: three distinct orbs representing the Three Jewels; a cluster of elongated shapes representing the Precious Jewel or Wish-Granting Jewel; and a single flaming jewel or flaming pearl. Other popular individual motifs are the thunderbolt (rdo rje or vajra), the swastika, and the whirling emblem. Less common motifs also occur, such as the "dry skull," a symbol associated with ritual offerings to the wrathful deities (2004.340a,b).

    A less common but highly evocative type of decoration on armor and weapons is the use of lettering. This usually takes the form of Lantsa (also called Ranjana), an ornamental alphabet derived from ancient Indian scripts, which is used for sacred texts and individual symbolic letters called seed syllables, or bija (1999.120). In a few instances, more conventional Tibetan scripts are also incorporated into decoration or used for inscriptions.

    Donald LaRocca
    Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art