Some of the earliest decorated armor was produced during the Celtic Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, and the area of modern-day France, Germany, and Austria. Especially famous are the shields found at Battersea and Winchelsea, decorated with embossed Celtic scrollwork, or the helmets adorned with embossed geometric patterns and crests. These crests could take the shape of two horns or of a flattened triangular profile, sometimes both. Those decorated with pairs of horns probably date to the twelfth or eleventh century B.C., and, incidentally, seem to be the only Scandinavian helmets to be adorned with horns (there is little evidence to suggest that Vikings ever used horns as crests). A helmet with a flattened triple-pointed crest, found recently at Moosbruckschrofen in Austria, probably dates from the fourteenth century B.C., and may thus be the earliest European helmet in existence. However, some of the more lavishly decorated items, such as shields and some helmets, were probably not made for warfare but intended solely as offerings to Celtic deities.
Ancient Greece (ca. 900–31 B.C.)
In Greece, too, the tradition of decorated armor reaches back into the Bronze Age. Although the plain examples of Classical Greek armor often possess a superb sculptural beauty, many specimens, especially helmets, were frequently also decorated with engraving and embossing. The Greeks usually protected only their heads, torsos, and lower legs with armor of hammered bronze sheet. While the lower leg defenses are mostly undecorated and simply shaped to closely fit the limbs, the breastplate and backplate (cuirass) were often embossed to mimic the anatomy of chest and back. Many helmets (1989.281.49-.50) are engraved with simple geometric patterns along the edges, but some are further embossed with geometric or figurative decoration. Evidence provided by painted vases reveals that many warriors had their helmets adorned with large crests, usually a comb of horse hair, while their large round shields were elaborately painted with geometric patterns, animals, or mythological scenes.
Ancient Rome (ca. 500 B.C.–ca. 400 A.D.)
As part of Europe’s first standing army, the soldiers of the Roman Republic and empire were equipped with plain and serviceable armor of bronze or iron, and shields often painted with devices signifying the unit to which the soldier belonged. Those in command, on the other hand, would often wear decorated armor, although some of the pieces were of a ceremonial rather than functional nature. Helmets with crests were worn by the centurio (a rank roughly equivalent to that of a captain), while the signifer (the standard bearer) adorned his armor with the hide of a lion, bear, or wolf, with the animal’s head worn over the helmet. Some cavalry helmets for mounted military games were embossed in the shape of human heads, or with figures and floral decoration, and sometimes fitted with a mask in the shape of a human face. Embossed decoration is also found on Roman horse armor.
Finally, mention must be made of the gladiators, many of whom were to some extent protected by armor. Surviving examples of gladiators’ equipment comprise helmets with crests, lower leg defenses, and shields, some of which are decorated with geometric, floral, and even figural embossing and engraving.
Migration Period and Early Middle Ages (ca. 400–1000)
The majority of armor used during the six or seven centuries between the fall of Rome and the early medieval period consisted of helmets, shirts of mail or scales, and shields. Unfortunately, extant pieces are extremely rare (e.g., only four Anglo-Saxon helmets survive today), so that it is difficult to draw a reliable picture. As in other periods and cultures, however, it can safely be assumed that only kings, wealthy chieftains, and elite warriors could afford elaborate decoration. Mail shirts and scale armor in general did not lend themselves to decoration. Accordingly, it was the helmet (42.50.1), shield, and such accessories as belts and clasps that were adorned and embellished in a variety of techniques. In Anglo-Saxon Britain, some helmet crests in the shape of small boars survive, while there is also some evidence for pairs of large horns. Perhaps the most lavishly decorated example is the magnificent early seventh-century helmet from Sutton Hoo, which consisted of an iron bowl decorated with applied figural ornaments with silver inlay, and with applied sheets of tinned copper embossed with animals and scenes from Germanic mythology. The Sutton Hoo ship burial also included an elaborate round wooden shield: its shield boss (hand cover) as well as the applied mounts and figural ornaments are decorated with embossing, gilding, engraving, and inlay. As in antiquity, early medieval shields were invariably of wood, usually covered with leather, and often painted, with paint substituting costly applied ornaments on lesser examples.
Middle Ages (ca. 1000–1400)
As in the previous centuries, the main protection for the man-at-arms was a mail shirt, which would usually be left undecorated. The armor of the medieval knight comprised such a mail shirt as well, but with a mail hood (coif) and mail mitten gauntlets (mufflers) attached to it, and accompanied by mail leg defenses. The helmet began to completely enclose the head and face. Although the knightly spurs, and sometimes the mail too, could be gilded, armor in general appears to have been left unadorned, while color and pattern were added to textile garments worn over the mail defenses. Since the helmet now obscured the wearer’s identity, shields were painted with various symbols to allow identification. The same devices could also be painted on the helmet, or applied as separate elements (crests) of wood, molded leather, papier-maché, and textiles. This practice was the beginning of what came to be known as heraldry. Although strictly speaking they were initially functional rather than decorative, heraldic devices became one of the most common forms of armor decoration in the Middle Ages and soon adorned every piece of knightly equipment, including that of his horse.
From the late thirteenth century onward, plates were added to reinforce the mail, particularly at vulnerable points such as the shoulders, elbows, and knees, and since these were usually exposed, they would often be decorated in various ways. For the torso, plates of metal, hardened leather, horn, or bone were riveted to the inside of costly and colorful textiles such as velvet, brocade, or cloth-of-gold. The exposed rivet heads of these defenses, known as coats of plates, and later brigandines (29.154.3), are often arranged in decorative patterns. During the fourteenth century, separate pieces of plate armor made of hardened leather or metal were introduced to protect the limbs and finally the torso itself. Leather armor could be molded, embossed, or incised with floral patterns and grotesque motifs, not unlike those found in the margins of medieval manuscripts, while the edges of metal plates were decorated with borders of applied latten (a copper alloy), which were sometimes gilded and engraved with floral patterns or inscriptions.
Late Middle Ages and Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600)
The development of plate armor was complete by about 1420, enclosing the wearer head to toe in a harness of articulated steel plates, although mail and textile defenses were never completely abandoned. Plate armor offered numerous possibilities for decoration in a variety of techniques: with applied borders (29.154.3), paint, heat-patination, embossing, etching, engraving and pointillé, gilding, and inlay. In addition, helmets and breastplates were covered in textile while wooden shields (25.26.1) continued to be decorated, usually with more or less elaborate heraldic devices. During the second half of the fifteenth century, it became fashionable, especially in the German-speaking territories, to decorate the surface of armor with raised ridges and grooves, sometimes corresponding to elaborately cut decoration to the plates’ edges, reminiscent of Gothic tracery. At about the same time, Italian armorers began producing armor all’antica (23.141): armor imitating (or thought to imitate) arms and armor of the style used by the heroes of classical antiquity. “Muscled cuirasses” and other figuratively embossed armor reappeared in Europe for the first time since antiquity, and were used for court festivities.
In Germany and other parts of western Europe, a change in fashion around 1500 resulted in emphasis shifting from the slender Gothic form, with its vertical and pointed decoration, to a rounded and heavy outline of the armor. Until about 1540, raised ridges became a more frequently used type of decoration, and the surfaces mainly of German and sometimes of Italian armors were covered with groups of flaring or parallel ridges (14.25.716), a fashion sometimes erroneously referred to as “Maximilian armor.”
During this period, between about 1515 and 1535, a few German armorers produced superb reproductions of contemporary costume in steel (costume armor) (24.179; 26.188.1, .2; 29.158.363a, b), which were sometimes accompanied by helmets with so-called grotesque or mask visors in the shape of human or animal heads. Such armors were worn for ceremonial purposes or tournaments during the elaborate lent festivities.
In Italy, between about 1530 and 1560, embossed armor (17.190.1720) reached its artistic peak with works by the famous Italian workshop of Filippo Negroli of Milan. Together with his brothers and a cousin, he produced parade armor in the all’antica style for the most illustrious clientele of European nobility, exquisitely embossed with figural and floral decoration, and often etched and gilded, or damascened and encrusted with gold and silver. Shields for ceremonial use were made either from wood and painted with elaborate mythological or historical scenes (42.50.16), or—when made of metal—embossed and decorated (34.85) in the same style as the armor they accompanied. The high standards set by the Negroli workshop were emulated (though never quite reached again) until the very end of the sixteenth century, with ceremonial armor for man and horse continuing to be decorated in the all’antica style (39.121; 04.3.217, 22.140).
However, since embossing tended to weaken the metal and thus render the armor useless for battle or tournament, it was etching—often combined with gilding and bluing—that from the beginning of the sixteenth century would become the most commonly applied technique of armor decoration throughout Europe. The subjects depicted ranged from devout inscriptions and narrow bands of floral or geometrical patterns, religious imagery (38.143), historical and mythological references, to political imagery, heraldry, and orders of chivalry. A popular motif on breastplates of somewhat plainer German armors of the last two-thirds of the sixteenth century was the image of a knight kneeling in prayer in front of a crucifix, often accompanied by a devout inscription. With decoration thus becoming more complex, armorers were now often aided by painters, engravers, and etchers, as well as goldsmiths.
Throughout the sixteenth century, the English royal workshop at Greenwich also produced armor for the English monarch and his court, most of which was partly or entirely etched, blued, and gilt (19.131.1,2; 32.130.6).
Decline (ca. 1600–1700)
During the seventeenth century, the use of armor finally fell into a gradual decline. Except for heavy cavalry use, sieges, and ceremonial and theatrical use, most men-at-arms discarded all armor but a cuirass, helmet, and perhaps gauntlets. For the extended civil and religious wars raging in seventeenth-century Europe, ever larger armies were being equipped with such mass-produced armor elements of relatively low quality, which for the most part were undecorated. However, armorers continued to produce small numbers of decorated armors (15.113.1-5, 29.158.885; 1989.3), or pieces of armor such as embossed and damascened collar plates for the ceremonial festivities of the nobility. Although the days of chivalry had long gone, both in design and decoration some of these examples still managed to echo the quality and glory of earlier periods.
Breiding, Dirk H. “The Decoration of European Armor.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/deca/hd_deca.htm (October 2003)