Peter Finer

A Korean Helmet Damascened in Gold, for a High-ranking Member of the Royal Household, Joseon Dynasty, Probably Yeongjo period, about 1724–76

Item Ref: 2521 Price on application

2521 1
2521 2
2521 7

Korea. Iron, gold, brass, silk.


Private collection, Germany, since 1980’s

The five-clawed dragon, an ancient symbol of imperial power in China, was adopted as the imperial symbol under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China (1271–1368), and continued to be used by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Dragons in pursuit of the flaming pearls of immortality are found on a number of Chinese and Mongolian helmets of this period, such a Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 2005.270, D. J. LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, New York, 2006, pp. 83–4, no. 18). Under the emperors of the Qing Dynasty this style seems to have fallen into disfavour in China, where applied decoration including calligraphic inscriptions are found on the helmets of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. In Korea the imperial Chinese dragon was adopted as its emblem by the Joseon (Choson) or Yi Dynasty (1392–1897). An overall decorative scheme involving dragons is found on a group of late sixteenth-century helmets from Joseon dynasty Korea, all with two-piece skulls, many of them associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in 1592–8, including examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no. 118.1878), Beijing (Wei Zhou, Zhongguo Bingqi shi gao, Beijing, 1957, pl. 69; Du Wenyu and Wang Yan, Zhongguo Gudai Bingqi yu Bingshu, Xian, 2007, p. 41) and the Musée Guimet, Paris. These may have been of Chinese manufacture originally, compare the example with an undecorated skull in the Royal Armouries (no. xxvia.257). Compare for example, the damascened helmet preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 1935.36.25.1A, illustrated in Stephen V. Grancsay, Arms and Armor Essays from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1920–1964, 1986, pp. 171–2, pl. 63.11). The form of the brow band and peak are closely comparable to another Chinese helmet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 1997.8, LaRocca 2006, pp. 85–6, no. 19) and the crisp decoration incised through silver overlay is executed in similar style, suggesting that the helmet might be even earlier and possible of late seventeenth-century date. 

The present helmet is a rare continuation of this Joseon tradition. The profusion and high quality of the gold damascening, together with the inclusion of imperial five-clawed dragons, indicates with certainty that this helmet would have been worn by a high-ranking member of the royal court. The form of the skull of our example, with its double transverse ridge, is very rare, and closely comparable to a single helmet in a Korean private collection whose skull is undecorated but whose brow band, peak and boss are very similar in form and decoration. The trident-shaped plume holder of our helmet, unattested in China, also appears on one of the late sixteenth-century Korean dragon helmets. It should be noted that the quality of the damascened patterns on the skull of the present helmet is on a par with the finest of the examples cited above, and that the present helmet is of the highest quality. Furthermore the form of the dragon en face at the front of our helmet so exactly emulates the red dragon robe (gollyongpo) depicted on the portrait of King Yeongjo (National Palace Museum of Korea, The King at the Palace: Joseon Royal Court Culture at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Seoul, 2015, no. 227) that it was most probably made for his court. The wooden pattern stamp for embroideries dated 1901, preserved in the same museum (ibid., fig. 16), indicates the longevity of this form of decoration within Joseon court culture. 

For a survey of the development of Chinese armour, from the archaic to the nineteenth century, see Robinson, Oriental Armour, 1967, 126–66 and Yonghua Liu, Zhongguo Gudai Junrong Fushi, Shanghai, 2003. Little literature on the history of early modern Korean arms and armour is available, but see the survey in J. L. Boots, ‘Korean Weapons and Armor’, Transactions of the Korean Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 23.2 (1934), 1–37.

The russet-iron skull is of one-piece construction formed as a dome of three flat-sided registers, arched over the eyes, studded with a row of rivets for attaching a padded textile neck guard, fitted with reticulated peak and apical boss each of gilt brass and each cast in low relief with pierced scroll-work bands involving auspicious emblems, the boss also decorated with a dragon guarding the open top of the helmet, and fitted with a tall iron finial with trident top and retaining a portion of the original decorative silk tassel. The skull is profusely decorated over its full surface with gold- damascened patterns of auspicious emblems all highly detailed with fine engraved work. The decoration arranged as a broad upper band and a narrow band bordered by gold lines over the lower sides, each filled with a series of five-clawed dragons (long), the front centring on a large dragon en face, involving flaming pearls (baozhu, symbolic of immortality), cloud scrolls and further small symbolic motifs, and the gold-damascened ornament preserved in extremely fine untouched condition throughout.

Size: Height 16.2 in / 41 cm