Fabric Armor and Helmet with Buddhist and Taoist symbols


Not on view

Various types of textiles have long been used as the basis for armor in many different cultures. By far the most typical method for utilizing cloth for armor involved forms of quilting. Quilted armor generally consists of an envelope of fabric that is stuffed with a shock-absorbing padding, which is stitched in place. Far more unusual is armor made up of layered fabric. The defensive quality is achieved by placing many sheets of cloth one atop another so that the material is thick enough to absorb a blow, deflect an edge, or turn away a point, while still allowing relative freedom of movement. Both methods are employed, although layering predominates, in this very rare fabric armor from Korea, the strength of which is spiritually augmented by a series of protective Taoist and Buddhist symbols.

The tunic of this armor is composed of thirty layers of a tough cotton fabric, skillfully cut and sandwiched together with hemp stitching to give an overall thickness of less than one inch. The brim, earflaps, and neck flap of the helmet are quilted in a conventional manner. The helmet is reinforced by a finial with four radiating bands made of tinned iron. Written in ink inside the tunic and the helmet are the names of three members of the Kim family, who presumably once used the armor.

The most prominent decorative feature of this armor is the series of five Taoist symbols stamped in ink at the front and rear of the skirts, at the shoulder blades of the tunic, and on the earflaps and neck flap of the helmet. These represent the Wu-yüeh (Five Mountains), which were revered as having the power to maintain universal peace and stability and to influence the destiny of humanity. Each symbolic mountain was associated with one of the five directions––North, South, East, West, and Central––and with a particular existing mountain. Over time, however, the direction and the mountain with which each symbol was identified changed repeatedly. As amulets the symbols, with their associated directions and mountains, had specific protective powers that were especially appropriate when used in the decoration of armor. The Eastern Mountain guaranteed long life, the Southern Mountain protected from harm by enemies or by fire, the Central Mountain gave relief from fatigue, the Western Mountain ensured against injury by the sword, and the Northern Mountain safeguarded against the perils of water, such as drowning or shipwreck. Also Taoist are the five columns of fu-lu, magical talismans in the form of stylized Chinese characters, that appear on the front of the waistband. They are believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits and to give protection from various types of harm or misfortune.

The decoration of this armor invites further divine protection through a Buddhist invocation, which is repeated four times on the helmet and once on the rear of the waistband. The invocation consists of six characters in Siddham, one of the Sanskrit-derived alphabets reserved for sacred literature in China, Korea, and Japan. It is the mantra, Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ.

Fabric Armor and Helmet with Buddhist and Taoist symbols, Cotton, hemp, copper alloy, iron, Korean

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