Stephen N. Fliegel Curator of Medieval Art
When most of us consider arms and armor, we probably conjure certain mental images: medieval knights, adventures in foreign lands, crusades, the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the romance of tournaments, and courtesy toward women. Such images have a profound place in Western culture. Arms and Armor from Imperial Austria, however, focuses not on this earlier era of European armor and weapons, but on the last flowering of armor and chivalry in the face of the growing role of firearms. But endings can be just as fascinating as beginnings, and the exhibition provides examples of armor and weapons from the 16th and 17th centuries, when armor reached technical perfection.
The first full suits of plate armor were developed in the Holy Roman Empire during the late Middle Ages, with production peaking in the 16th century. First, small plates were added over chain mail to cover the limbs, then larger ones to protect the torso, until by the 15th century the entire body was encased in steel. Around 1400, by the time King Henry V of England invaded France, metal chain mail was either completely covered with or replaced by plates of steel. Regarded as garments in steel, armor generally followed prevailing male fashion in its design. Gothic armor of the 1400s, with its cusped and pointed forms, gradually yielded to the harmony of proportion typical for Renaissance taste. Breastplates during the 1500s were formed of a hemisphere based on a horizontal waistline. At the beginning of the 1600s, practicality intruded and armor became heavy and clumsy in order to protect the wearer from increasingly lethal firearms. As the weight of a complete suit of armor increased, soldiers began to discard the less important pieces to enhance mobility. The structure of armor gradually culminated in the simple combination of three-quarter-length armor with knee-long tassets—protecting the head, chest, and thighs. By the end of the 1600s, even Central Europe’s traditional heavy cavalry was content to wear only a cuirass (for the torso) and a zischägge, a Hungarian type of open helmet with nose guard.
Making a suit of armor was a labor-intensive and strenuous process that required the skills of a number of craftsmen. The long process began with a billet, a small unfinished bar of iron or steel. Billets were made not by the armorer but rather in iron-producing centers; it is no coincidence that the major armor workshops in Austria and South Germany were situated near where the raw material was mined. The steelmaker then hammered the billets into plates for shipment to the armorer’s workshop. The armorer would first cut the steel plates into the rough shapes needed to form a specific armor, using patterns much like those used by tailors in order to see the flat shapes of the various pieces before hammering. He would then begin to work the steel in its cold state by hammering it out until a basic shape was achieved. After the 13th century, the plates were subsequently heated and hammered over anvil-like metal formers or “dies” corresponding to the final shape desired. Large numbers of these formers were kept in the workshop to accommodate the many types, styles, and sizes of armor elements.
An important feature of plate armor was its shape. Instead of simply making the steel thicker (and impractically heavy), armorers fashioned individual plates at angles to ward off crossbow bolts or sword thrusts. The shaped plates graduated in thickness according to the vulnerability of different body parts. Thus, a breastplate was made thicker than a backplate, and the breastplate itself was made thicker at its center to protect vital areas such as the heart. With the advancing sophistication of firearms in the 16th century, “armor of proof” was developed. Simply put, armor of proof was guaranteed to resist contemporary firearms. The armorer fired a pistol from 20 paces at his finished pieces, and the resulting dent from the bullet was left in place as “proof” of the armor’s soundness. The exhibition includes many examples.
Once the constituent plates had been forged, they were assembled on a trial basis to check the fit. Then the unassembled pieces would be passed to the next craftsman, the polisher (called a “millman” in England), after which the pieces were delivered to the finisher or perhaps to the master armorer for assembly. Each of the individual plates (sometimes as many as 200) had to be attached to one another in the correct order to ensure a perfect fit and ease of movement—either riveted plate to plate, using leather straps running along the inside of the plates, or using “sliding” rivets whereby rivets on one piece worked in a slot on the next.
Armor decoration employed virtually all the techniques used in contemporary metalwork: etching, gilding, bluing, damascening, embossing, engraving, and even enameling. Such expressions of virtuosity on the part of the armorer and armor decorator (usually separate craftsmen) appealed to the individuality of the Renaissance princes who enjoyed the means to pay for this costly equipment. There evolved at this time a stock vocabulary of ornamental details and motifs, often abstruse, that came to be used for the decoration of arms and armor with ever-increasing extravagance. This ornamental vocabulary ultimately derived from or reflected other branches of Renaissance decorative arts, chiefly goldsmithwork, enameling, and ceramic decoration, but also, to a significant degree, print etching.
In the final step, various components—the helmet interior, breastplate, and tassets, for example—were fitted with padded linings or velvet pickadils, which made the suit more comfortable to wear and prevented the plates from scratching as they moved. The completed suit was inspected once again for fit and finish before the master armorer stamped his mark. At Nuremberg, the city’s final examiners also stamped the city’s half-eagle coat of arms on approved armor. The Landeszeughaus armory at Graz—the source of the objects in Arms and Armor from Imperial Austria—is known to have maintained an armor workshop, but much of its inventory was commissioned from local armorers or from the great workshops in Augsburg and Nuremberg.
The making of armor would survive into the middle of the 17th century before gradually losing its function in the encroaching modern world. The Hapsburg dynasty ruled much of continental Europe during one of the most dynamic phases in its history, and the arms and armor produced in imperial Austria beautifully express a turbulent and artistically rich era joining the late medieval world with the modern.
Cleveland Art, March 2008