Imperial Austria: Treasures of Art, Arms and Armor from the State of Styria

Arms and Armor as Art Form
and the Decorated Surface

    Field armor; probably made partly in Innsbruck, 1540-1550; Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Lynn Diane DeMarco
    Many German and Austrian breastplates from the mid 16th century bear a crucifixion-and-kneeling-knight motif. It is thought that in some cases these were personalized devotional images to protect the owner in battle.

In addition to their obvious functions, arms and armor were measures of rank, wealth, and personal taste in the 15th through 17th centuries. Armor was so closely related to fashion that it sometimes paralleled it; pleats of civilian clothing were copied in Maximilian-style armor, for example, and armour design was adapted to accommodate the puffed breeches in style in the 17th century. Adept armor designers combined their fashion sense with impressive knowledge of defence, smithing, and human anatomy to produce beautiful yet functional protective equipment appropriate to the wearer's rank.

    Halberds, probably made in Upper Austria, late 16th century, and boar spear, made in Styria, dated 1573; Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Richard Margolis
    Although halberds were largely obsolete in combat by the 17th century, they continued to be carried on ceremonial occasions or as a sign of rank. Their flat blades and unusual shapes were challenging surfaces for talented decorators of arms.

Both arms and armor provided surfaces for decorators who, infused with Renaissance and Baroque artistic energy, skilfully embellished the material. In metalworking centres such as Augsburg and Nuremberg, there was an active interchange among craftsmen. Etchers such as Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536) of Augsburg, to whose school the horse armor ornament is attributed, decorated many different kinds of metal surfaces such as armor, copperplates for printing on paper, and silver.

For their design sources, decorators relied on published Italian Renaissance motifs inspired by classical ornaments. Scrolls, arabesques, and grotesques were particular favourites. The moresque, based on Islamic designs, was also popular. Designs were applied to everything from arms and armor to wooden gun stocks inlaid with stag horn.

    Morion, made in Nuremberg, c.1575, by Master "MR" (perhaps Martin Rotschmied, Michel Roth or Martin Rotschuch); Joanneum Graz, Landeszeughaus. Photo: Michael Oberer
    Prints on paper disseminated designs developed in Italy to artists and artisans working throughout Europe. The moresque patterns etched on the skull and brim of the morion (an open helmet used by infantry and light horsemen), and the arabesque, the foliate pattern etched on the morion's comb, were Italian and Islamic variations on traditional hellenistic motifs.

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Date created: November 16, 1995Last updated: July 13, 2001