September Treasure of the Month

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September Treasure of the Month

An Armet in the ‘Maximilian’ Style, German, c. 1530

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection and to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month, Curator of Arms and Armour, Dr Tobias Capwell, explores this sixteenth-century armet in the ‘Maximilian’ Style.

The armour of the Renaissance knight was both practical equipment for fighting and a very elaborate form of dress. The skilled armourer who made this very fine helmet in the first half of the sixteenth century was therefore both a military engineer and the creator of a fashionable image.

By the standards of courtly German armour of the time, this helmet is fairly uncomplicated, incorporating standard methods of construction such as the cheek-pieces which hinge open at the sides to admit the wearer’s head, and the ‘bellows’ -style visor typical of the first half of the sixteenth century.

Nevertheless, the functional design of this helmet is extremely good. The main sights (eye-slots) are positioned very close to the wearer’s eyes, giving a very good field of view. Vision is improved even further by the sets of holes and slots cut into the visor below the sights, which also provide good ventilation. The armourer has also provided clusters of holes in the sides of the helmet to help improve the wearer’s hearing (holes were also usually cut out of the padded internal lining to free the ears).

It is important to note too though that the design of this piece goes beyond utilitarian concerns. The central ridge or comb hammered into the skull has been elegantly twisted or ‘roped’, while the lines of punched dots forming connective lines between the ear-holes remind us of the Renaissance love of geometry. Everywhere the essential forms of the plates have been accented with incised lines, and file-cut decoration dances across their edges. Finally there is the definitive feature of the ‘Maximilian’ style (named after the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, 1459-1519), bunches of closely-set embossed flutes running on either side of the medial comb from the brow around the back of the skull. These gracile ridges give a unique vigour to armour of this style; some have even suggested that they may have been intended to strengthen the plate against attack, on the principle of corrugation.

Whether they actually do add strength to the steel or not, it is clear that this helmet has seen quite a lot of action in real combat. Both the visor and the front of the skull are heavily scarred by weapon impacts, which have bitten into the horizontal ridges of the visor and the medial comb. These marks are mostly oriented from upper right to lower left, indicating direct attacks from right-handed opponents, as would typically be expected. However there are also battle scars on the back and sides of this helmet, struck in a variety of different ways.

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The Fourth Tournament, 1509, Lucas Cranach the Elder, German

Some of this damage could have been inflicted during a military conflict, although helmets like this one were also worn in a type of tournament called the Freiturnier or ‘free tourney’, in which teams of knights first charged each other with lances and then returned to fight with swords in a mass combat or mêlée. This would explain the large number of cuts marks, since thrusting with the point was disallowed in the free tourney.

- Dr Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour

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