Pair of Sword-Grip Ornaments (Menuki)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

About the work

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These playful black and gold-accented elephants would have been affixed to either side of a sword hilt. They were made between 1743 and 1801. Elephants are important symbols in Buddhism, representing the mind. Wild elephants are the untrained mind; white elephants represent the strength of a mind practicing dharma. White elephants frequently show up in art about the Buddha’s life and as a vehicle for Bodhisattvas. Elephants aren’t native to Japan, so Japanese artists would likely have drawn them from other representations. As a result, elephants like the ones above can have an unusual—though decidedly cute—appearance.

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