Important Cultural PropertySmall box depicting chrysanthemum flowers in maki-e lacquer

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  • Lacquered wood
  • 18.5×31.3×24.0 cm
  • Nanboku-chō to Muromachi period, 15th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • H137

Here is a small rectangular box with rounded edges and a fitted lid. It depicts chrysanthemum flowers, a species of flower introduced to Japan from China. As a symbol of longevity, chrysanthemums have featured in various legends and literary works, such as the tale of Kikujidō (Chrysanthemum Boy) and Miyao Tomiko’s Kikumagaki (Chrysanthemum Hedge), and have been popular as an auspicious motif on handicrafts since ancient times.

The box is decorated using a class of techniques known collectively as maki-e (lit., “sprinkled picture”). Forming the ground of the design is flat gold powder (hiramefun) sprinkled densely over a black lacquered surface. The chrysanthemums are then rendered using two techniques: low-relief takamaki-e, where the design is first raised with layers of lacquer and then covered in gold powder, and silver kanagai, in which thin plates of metal are cut out into various shapes and pasted onto a lacquered surface. All the flowers on this box have double petals, and appear in different stages of maturity from various angles. The mud patch out of which the flowers grow is rendered in raised gold takamaki-e and burnished maki-e within outlines created using small silver pieces (kirikane). Burnished maki-e is a technique that involves first rendering a design in lacquer, filling it with gold and/or silver powders, covering that in yet another layer of lacquer and letting the section dry, then finally polishing away excess lacquer to reveal the final pattern. Kirikane, on the other hand, involves cutting thin pieces of metal into a desired shape and pasting it onto a lacquered surface.

On one side of the box is a gilt-bronze fitting with a ring to which a rope would have been attached. It takes the shape of eight chrysanthemums around a central flower to reproduce an arrangement reminiscent of a kuyōmon motif, which represents the nine heavenly bodies in ancient Indian astronomy and subsequently Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The inner faces of the box are lined with a gold brocade decorated with arabesque patterns.

Few handicrafts remain today from the late Nanboku-chō to early Muromachi period, making this box a valuable work with its adherence to traditional designs and techniques.