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If the Helmet Fits, Wear It!

Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant for the Department of Medieval Art
March 21, 2021
Closed Sallet with Grotesque Face (Schembart visor), c. 1500. Germany, Nuremberg, early 16th Century. 1916.1646

“In the age of COVID, the facemask is the most visible form of PPE, or personal protective equipment. But the art of PPE has a long history.” — The Art of PPE

Let’s take a look at another piece of protective equipment from the Medieval era, the helmet.

Photo: Scott Shaw for the CMA.

Helmets are among the earliest forms of Old World protective armor, the first examples are made of fabric, leather, and bone. During the European Bronze Age, 3200 to1200 BC, metal was added to offer greater rigidity and durability. The Greeks perfected these practices by shaping metal plates to the human body to create fully metal helmets. The earliest and simplest conical shaped helmets soon evolved, becoming increasingly sophisticated and by the 1300s helmets with face masks or guards were in use. By 1500 the range of forms and styles available was vast and varied by region and occasion. Manufacturing methods and materials continued to improve and effectiveness in the level of protection, and decoration flourished. Although full face masks make wearers anonymous, it did not prevent them from communicating.

The helmet is held closed with a spring latch on the right side of the neck. The light weight may indicate it was not used in tournaments but rather in parades. Closed Sallet with Grotesque Face (Schembart visor), c. 1500, Germany, Nuremberg. Painted steel; 27.3 x 25.7 x 22.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Severance 1916.1646. On view in gallery 210A.

Known for their fiercely grimacing human or animal faces, medieval visors like this are known as schembart (bearded mask) visors, after the masked revelers in the Schembartlauf, a carnival popular in Nuremberg that featured costumed men parading through town with extravagant horse-drawn floats. In addition to music, dancing, and food, these festivals were often held in conjunction with a tournament in which such helmets were worn. Originally painted white, shadows of eyebrows, a mustache, and decorative stippling applied in black can still be seen. A broad, toothy grin was created by piercing the surface with rectangular holes. This masked revelry came to an end in 1539 due to the complaints of a preacher who objected to the festivities after he was depicted unflatteringly in a float.

After the era of wearing armor into battle came to an end, this helmet and gorget had use as part of an achievement, a group of weapons and armor suspended over a knight’s tomb. Close Helmet and Gorget (from a Funerary Achievement?), c. 1590–1625. Netherlands(?). Gilded steel (invaded with rust); red velvet lining, plume holder; helmet: 33 x 34 x 21.3 cm; gorget 32.4 x 24.8 x 19.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gifts of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Severance, 1916.1787 and 1916.1806. On view in gallery 210A.

This helmet is attached to a gorget, a steel collar that protects the throat. It once had an impressive gold finish achieved with fire gilding, or mercury gilding, so-called because mercury was combined with gold to form an amalgam with a buttery consistency that was applied to the surface. When the helmet was heated, the mercury evaporated and left behind a thin coating of gold. Today the technique is illegal in many places because the resulting mercury vapor is extremely toxic. Although originally part of a full suit and meant to protect a soldier in the field, this helmet and gorget appear to have been repurposed as funerary ornaments. It would have been suspended over the tomb of a now unidentified knight, serving as a symbol of the deceased’s social status and achievements.

The decorations on this suit of armor were done by a technique known as etching. Acid was used to “bite” into the steel plates to create patterns that could then be enhanced with gilding. Close Helmet from Half Armor for the Foot Tournament, c. 1590. Pompeo della Cesa (Italian, active 1572–93). Steel, etched and gilded; brass rivets; leather and velvet fittings; 31.7 x 27.7 x 21.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1996.299.a. On view in gallery 210A.

While many helmets were used for combat and are separated from their original suits, another example was made specifically for the foot tournament and is still attached. The foot tournament was a competition between two armed combatants who were kept apart by a waist-height barrier. Besides protecting the face, this helmet was specifically designed to allow the wearer to rotate his head without exposing his vulnerable neck to his opponent. Along the back is a large brass plume holder, used to attach elements that embellished the helmet but that could also help aid in identifying who was behind the mask. This suit was designed by Milan’s Pompeo della Cesa, the renowned armorer who in the late 1500s helped outfit the most wealthy and noble clients.

Helmets like this were used at a time when firearms were becoming more prevalent, the soldier wearing it would have wielded one himself. Armor soon fell out of favor because it reduced speed and agility. Cavalry Spider Helmet, 1600s. France. Iron with black paint; 30.2 x 21.3 x 17.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Severance, 1921.1258. On view in gallery 210A.

Known as a spider helmet for obvious reasons, the tangs or prongs that extend downward on this example protected a soldier’s face from a slashing sword. A “lock” at the top is spring-loaded; when not in use the tangs could be folded up and secured, and a simple turn of the screw located at the front released them. This helmet was made specifically for use in the field by the light cavalry who wore only a half suit of armor, sturdy riding boots, and an open helmet. Parts were purposefully blackened while other areas were polished. Although this helmet was purely utilitarian the effect must have been menacing.

This thick-walled helmet weighs just over ten pounds and must have been a challenge to wear, but for 30 years the style was surprisingly popular on the battlefield. Savoyard Helmet (Todenkopf), c. 1600–1620. Italy or Germany. Steel, blackened; 30.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Trust, 2013.50. On view in gallery 210A.

Employed during a time when firearms were becoming increasingly sophisticated and widely used on the battlefield, full face masks like this one helped protect the wearer from shot and powder. Another function, arguably as important, was to intimidate and terrify the enemy. The purposefully blackened steel was meant to evoke a skull and such helmets — popular throughout southern Germany, Austria, and northern Italy in the 1600s — became known as todenkopf or death’s head. Worn by cuirassiers, heavy cavalrymen armed with pistols and swords, it would have been paired with armor that extended only to the knee and withsturdy riding boots.

A noble soldier clad in armor ignores a horned devil and even Death, who wears a crown with snakes and holds the hourglass of mortality. Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513. Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Engraving; sheet: 24.4 x 19 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Elisabeth Severance Prentiss and Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Collections by exchange, 1965.231.

In the 1500s and 1600s helmet design reached its zenith. Made for every occasion, helmets were used on the battlefield as well as in tournaments and trends in design varied depending on the region. Although a helmet’s ultimate function was to protect the wearer from injury and death, its secondary purpose was to communicate by intimidating and terrorizing enemies and opponents and by reflecting the wearer’s wealth, status, power, and valor.

Photo: Scott Shaw for the CMA.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only has a profound impact on our lives but also opens a new perspective on the late Middle Ages. Art in the Time of the Black Death, CMA curator Gerhard Lutz’s story in Stories from Storage is told through the CMA’s collection of medieval art. It provides insights into the thinking, piety and artistic production in Western Europe in the 14th century before, during and after the Black Death.

Visit Stories from Storage to see Art in the Time of the Black Death and 19 other stories that, together, span about 3,000 years of art. Afterwards, walk through the Armour Court in gallery 210A.