Horse on parade: Conservation of a Momoyama Bamen mask

Jane Gillies


A rare horse mask from Japan, known as a “Bamen”, made during the Momoyama period, was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2018. The mask was used as ceremonial horse armor in military parades.  The mask was worn on the animal’s forehead above the eyes. The eyes of the horse would in fact be on the sides of the mask and the painted dragon’s eyes on the mask were just decorative. These masks first appeared during the 16th century, but this Bamen is one of the earliest known. The iconography can be immediately associated with depictions of dragons common during that period. The profusion of gold is typical of the taste of the Momoyama period and the absence of large lacquered parts and decorative features gives to this Bamen a strength that cannot be seen on later examples. The lacquer surface was formed into concave cells to imitate dragon scales and wrinkled skin over the leather sections.  

The mask was constructed from a variety of interesting materials with a core of papier-mâché and boiled leather, which was then covered with lacquer. The use of a mixture of paper and leather as a base for lacquer was called “harikake” and was common for other items as well, as it was at the same time light and hard. The paper used in this case and many others was painted with calligraphy and was re-cycled from students’ writing practice. The gold was generally applied in powder form in a technique called “takanuri”, which was also often used on armor of this period.  

On arrival, the condition and appearance of the mask was found to be very poor, with extensive insect damage to the core, distortion and hardening of the leather, an inflexible lacquer surface which was now falling apart and a hard crust of tarry soot mixed with coarse particulates. Insects had eaten out the core leaving little support for the lacquer surface and the edges of the mask had largely collapsed. Previous attempts at repair had resulted in the incorrect positioning of the ears and a large unsightly fill of hard material in the middle of one eye.  

This conservation treatment completely transformed the appearance of the broken-down mask. The removal of the sooty crust, consolidation and compensation of the lost core, re-formation of the distortions to the leather and removal of old repairs with minimal fill and inpainting, were some of the contributing aspects of the treatment. Notable in the treatment was the use of Japanese tissue to replace the core, which was sympathetic and reversible. Applications of water-based Agar gel were used to soften the otherwise impenetrable crust, which was user-friendly and sustainable, without the use of toxic solvents. The X-radiography performed revealed a fascinating structure of hidden iron nails, brass grommets and the puzzling and unexpected image of a series of smoke rings inside one horn. 

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28