April Treasure of the Month

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April Treasure of the Month

A Light Horseman's Sallet originating from south Germany, dated c. 1480-1510.

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection as well as to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month we focus on this light horseman's sallet, originating from south Germany.

Some things in the Wallace Collection are considered treasures, but for perhaps less obvious reasons.

In the Renaissance, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe, the finest polished, gilded and etched armour was rare; most people involved in military activity would see it only rarely, worn by their commanders and wealthy noblemen. However, museum collections today are full of such rich equipment. High-quality armour was deemed worthy of preservation, and later prized as great art by modern collectors. In this way, the luxurious minority became, in modern displays, the typical majority. Almost all of the rougher, cheaper armour worn by most fighting men throughout history has been lost- it was used until it disintegrated, recycled, or simply thrown on the scrap pile.

This helmet, of an ordinary, rank-and-file horseman, is therefore extremely rare and important. It is precisely the kind of low-quality 'munitions' armour that almost never survives to the present day. It provides a fascinating glimpse of the armour of the common man, the sort of equipment that was once produced by the thousands annually in great armour-making centres such as Nuremberg in southern Germany, which was famous for its capacity to outfit whole armies with weapons and armour.

To mass-produce cheap armour for thousands of men, corners had to be cut. This helmet reveals how the hammerman who beat it out of a flat plate of steel did only as much work as was absolutely necessary, creating something roughly head-shaped, with a rudimentary tail to protect the neck and a moveable visor. He has not refined the shape, or turned the edges of the plates. Crucially, the surface of this helmet has never been ground or polished, but instead was left rough from the forging, covered in the marks of the hammer. Renaissance inventories often refer to such helmets as 'black sallets', to describe those inexpensive helmets left 'black' or 'rough' from the hammer.

Such helmets were often decorated with paint, which was an inexpensive way to create an impressive visual effect. A closely similar helmet is today preserved in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and this one retains its original painted surface, a flamboyant design of red and white stars against a checkboarded field.

Such helmets were distinctively not those of knights and nobles, and interestingly they appear in the work of great German Renaissance artists for precisely this reason. When Albrecht Dürer made his extraordinary engraving of Saint George on Horseback between 1505 and 1508, his intention was to create on image of a common man elevated to sainthood, a holy figure that everyone could relate to.

He therefore portrayed him, not has an artistocratic knight in the best, complete armour, but rather as a humble light horseman, one who proudly wears a painted munitions sallet just like our Treasure of the Month.

- Dr Tobias Capwell, Curator of European Arms and Armour.