The Japanese word keman is a translation of the Sanskrit word kusuma-mala, meaning flower garland. Early Buddhists in India placed garlands of fresh flowers on stupas to show their reverence of the Buddha. In East Asia, garlands were used to ornament the space of the Buddha, enhancing the magnificence of the deity. These round pendent discs, made of metal, leather, or wood, are thought to have originated as floral wreaths placed before the altar as votive offerings. Richly ornamented keman are an integral part of the interior decoration of an Image Hall in a Buddhist temple. Generally they are suspended from columns or from the outer edges of the canopy above the open altar platform. In the Nara and Heian periods, these substitutes for perishable flowers were usually made of painted leather. In the Fujiwara period, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the court was extremely wealthy and money was no object, gilt bronze was favored. For reasons of economy, leather and wood found favor from the fourteenth century.
This example of the classic type in wood is carved and painted on both sides with a symmetrical openwork design of lotus blossoms and buds, the traditional flower of the Buddhist paradise. The lotus are rose-colored and white, their veins painted with gold pigment. Leaves are green and blue. A blue ribbon (only a minute portion of the pigment remains), depicted as hanging at the center of the circle of blossoms, is tied in a large knot, a reminder of the origin of the keman as a flower garland suspended from a ribbon. The disc was suspended from a ring (now missing) which fit through the pierced metal bead attached to the top rim. Even though the keman hung from a tie-beam and would have been difficult to see, it reveals consummate craftsmanship and attention to smallest details. The rim is encased in a protective gilt-bronze sheath.
There was additional decoration in the form of five small metal bells suspended from the hooks on the bottom rim, and two long metal tassels hung below the ribbon ends.
The pair to this keman was sold in these Rooms, December 18, 1992, lot 409. In terms of dimensions, style and technique, both are closely related to two wood keman datable to the fourteenth century in the collection of the Nara National Museum (see Nara National Museum, Flowers of Buddhist Applied Arts, exh. cat. [April-May, 1982], no. 176).