Place of Origin: Tibet
Date: 15th to 17th Century
This scarce Tibetan saddle, with its highly decorative gilded and varnished leather panels, is attached to a wooden frame called a saddletree. The front plate (the pommel) and the rear plate (the cantle) are both arch-shaped and connected by a pair of sideboards that have end-board extensions. These extensions are decorated with en-suite leather varnished panels. For strength, these panels are bordered with iron frames chased with gold and silver foliate scrollwork in a typical Tibetan fashion. The largest panel, the pommel, consists of an outer leather area with an iron trim and a central, raised rib. A smaller leather section sits below this, bordered top and bottom with further iron arches. The cantle is of similar construction, but has a single piece of leather with a raised central rib—it too is bordered with wide, iron arches.
Dense sprays of lush, leafy stems and blossoms frame a central, flaming wish-fulfilling jewel that sits on a lotus base and is flanked by a pair of Makara dragons. All is beautifully, expertly painted in gold and set against a red background. The cantle also has the same decoration and, in my opinion, shows an even better pair of dragons, done so expertly it would rival any figural painting executed on Tibetan leather armour. The floral arrangements and generally naturalistic style of painting are similar to a 17th century Tibetan wooden box from a private collection that is illustrated in the book Wooden Wonders: Tibetan Furniture in Secular and Religious Life (1).
The collection of Tibetan leather armour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and those published in Don La Rocca’s 2006 book Warriors of the Himalayas cannot be overlooked as this saddle shows the same themes and patterns. La Rocca (2) explains that the lacquer-like effect appears to consist of a base layer or layers of pigmented shellac, with the gold designs in gold leaf, and then a further layer of shellac upon which the details are painted in fine black lines, finally to be complemented by a coat of tung oil glaze.
(1) Kamansky, Wooden Wonders: Tibetan Furniture in Secular and Religious Life, 2004, p.64, cat.no.241.
(2) La Rocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armour of Tibet, 2006, P.105, cat.no.30.