“Flower Garland” with Blue Magpies


“Flower Garland” with Blue Magpies

metalwork / Kamakura

Kamakura period, 13th century

Gilt cast bronze


A keman is a ritual ornament hung from the beams of Buddhist sanctums. This keman is made of gilt bronze. The outer frame is shaped like a wide fan. The inner section has an arabesque design rendered in openwork and hairline engraving on a bronze plate, with two three-dimensional long-tailed birds facing each other in the middle. It also features imaginary flowers called hosoge that often appear in Japanese Buddhist art. In the center is a decoration that resembles string tied in a bow. Representations of hosoge flowers and arabesque designs were perfected during the Heian period, during the 11th and 12th centuries, with the examples here somewhat formulaic by comparison. Nonetheless, superlative craftsmanship is still on display in the intricate openwork.

The Chinese characters for “keman” originally meant “flower-shaped hair ornament.” In Buddhism, flowers were used to solemnly decorate images of the Buddha, with flowers subsequently used to decorate clothes or buildings in ancient India, the birthplace of the Buddha. Perhaps for reasons of durability, fresh flowers were eventually superseded by ornaments made of cloth, wood, animal hide or metal, for example. These keman pendants were produced in volume in Japan from the 8th century onwards, with many still with us today. These include keman still in use at temples or ancient keman designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Some keman are made of wood or leather and colored, for instance, while others feature several flowers that flow together like a garland. However, most extant keman are made of gilt bronze and are shaped like wide fans with a string decoration in the middle, like this example. This string decoration alludes to how fresh flowers were strung together.

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