Important Cultural PropertySaddle decorated with tortoiseshell patterns in mother-of-pearl inlay

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  • Lacquered wood
  • H. of pommel 29.0 cm, H. of cantle 30.3 cm, L. of seat 39.0 cm
  • Heian period, 12th century
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • H147

An example of a Japanese saddle with mother-of-pearl inlay created around the early medieval period (12th century), this work is made out of four parts: a pommel (front arch), a cantle (back arch), and two wooden pieces that make up the seat. Both the pommel and cantle have a thin, outer rim known as an umi (sea) framing the primary arch, which is known as an iso (shore); this identifies the saddle as a kind of umi-ari (lit., “with sea”) saddle. The iso on this work are broad and gently convex, while the umi are comparatively narrow. Both the seat boards are wide, while the cantle is tilted outwards. Another feature of this saddle is how the outline of the pommel’s iso, when viewed from the front, is relatively angular when compared to normal saddles, due to the almost straight lines that connect its peak to its shoulders, and its shoulders to its bottom tips. In terms of decorations, the entirety of this saddle has been covered with black lacquer; abalone shells that had been cut into pieces resembling scutes on a turtle shell were then tessellated on the pommel, the cantle, as well as the external surface of the seat pieces.

Hand-shaped indentations have been cut into the shoulder of the pommel. However, the comparatively crude workmanship suggests that they were added at a later date, i.e., the original pommel did not come with such indentations. Furthermore, the way the shell tessellations fold over the indentations tells us that even the mother-of-pearl inlay decorations were appended later. Despite these modifications, this object remains a rare example of an umi-ari saddle that had been created without hand-shaped indentations to begin with. As such, it is an important artifact from the transitory period during which ancient saddles were evolving into medieval saddles.