Armor made from steel plates that covered almost the entire body was developed around the late fourteenth century in Northern Italy, and spread north of the Alps soon after. Most early examples were plain, but by the middle of the fifteenth century armorers began to emboss surfaces with ridges and grooves and add gilt copper-alloy applications, transferring current tastes in civilian fashion to create sumptuous garments of steel. The turn of the sixteenth century saw the first elements of armor embellished with etching, a technique that dominated the decor until the end of armor as an art form, in the middle of the seventeenth century.
The Development of Etching
The technique of etching allows the artist to transfer the lively and immediate nature of a drawing directly onto steel. Whether it is a metal printing plate or an element of armor, the procedure is almost exactly the same: the metal surface was covered with a coat of acid-resistant paint into which the design was "drawn" by scraping away parts of the coating (usually the background, outlines, and shading). When a mild acid was applied to the exposed areas of metal, the motif (standing out from the etched background) was permanently transferred to the steel. In order to emphasize the contrast between design and surrounding surface after the coating had been removed, etched areas—or parts thereof—were often darkened or gilt. Printed etchings and etched armor are therefore close relatives, separated only through the strict classification of modern art history, which divides them among departments of prints, arms and armor, and decorative arts.
As early as the High Middle Ages, blade smiths employed etching to apply short inscriptions to their works. Some Northern Italian swords from the second half of the fifteenth century feature a much more complex etched decoration. In the early years of armor etching, around 1500, only minor details were etched into armor—a few undulating tendrils or a brief inscription. The field armor of Philipp the Handsome (1478–1506) in Vienna, for example—made by Lorenz Helmschmid (Augsburg, about 1445–1516)—shows only the Order of the Golden Fleece hanging from the neck. Within a few years, the technique became an integral part of armor decoration in Germany, and it soon covered a great part of the steel surface, often gilded and combined with embossing and bluing.
While individual motifs found among etched decorations are usually very small in scale—comparable to late medieval book illumination and printed graphics—they are incredibly rich in both subject matter and detail. A close look at many pieces of armor offers an entire world of heroic action, stories of courtly love, and scenes of hunting and fighting: Saint George killing the dragon, Hercules defeating Antaeus, hunters chasing the unicorn, and real and mythical beasts inhabiting the foliage. Armor of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was not just meant for war, but was also a symbol of power and strength, and richly decorated armors were commissioned to mark important political occasions like coronations, weddings, military campaigns, or triumphal entries.
A few rare examples of etched armor from the earliest years of the German Renaissance, shortly after 1500, are preserved in European and American museums, most of which feature decoration that is stylistically and iconographical diverse. The armor of Eitel Friedrich II, Count of Zollern (1452–1512) in Vienna, made in Augsburg about 1505/10, is decorated with a difficult etching technique known as Goldschmelz. In this process, the motif itself (not its background) is etched into the metal surface. These areas are then mechanically roughened, a copper-alloy base is applied, and the latter is subsequently fire-gilt. The effect on Eitel Friedrich's armor is spectacular, as the decoration consists of bands containing an almost incalculable variety of flowers and foliage interspersed with hunters, knights, and lansquenets. Among those brave and heroic figures is a scene that requires a few words of explanation: a peasant pushing a woman seated in a wheelbarrow—presumably his wife—who is cracking a whip over his head (see image above). This may seem surprising or even inappropriate for armor, but it actually fits into a specific genre of medieval scenes meant to instruct kings and lesser rulers on certain aspects of government and behavior. While positive models of virtue were crucial, so too were cautionary examples of wrongdoing. As Vincent of Beauvais wrote in De eruditione filiorum regalium (1247/49), "no evil can be avoided if you are not aware of it." And so depictions of the topsy-turvy world in which women have power over men were quite popular in the Northern countries during the Late Middle Ages. Prints, ivory caskets, and paintings depict the subject, but perhaps nowhere is the contrast of masculine virtue and weakness as pointed as on armor.
Armor and Fashion
As in the fifteenth century, armor of the German Renaissance often imitated contemporary fashion. In contrast to the figure-accentuating fashions of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance clothing was broad and robust, and armorers followed the style. Particularly curious features of Renaissance fashion are the extravagant puffed and slashed costumes of the Landsknechte, the German mercenary infantry troops. This extravagant, modish style is imitated in the "costume armor" of Wilhelm Freiherr von Roggendorf (1481–1541) in Vienna, a masterpiece by Kolman Helmschmid (1471–1532). This exceptional type of armor is also represented in the Metropolitan Museum, which displays the backplate and huge puffed sleeves of a costume armor—probably made for Jerzy Herkules Radziwill (1480–1541), an important and powerful Polish-Lithuanian nobleman—that is attributed to the same maker, Kolman Helmschmid (see 24.179 and 26.188.1,2).
Another curious component of German Renaissance fashion was the long pleated skirt commonly worn by men, especially with armor, as depicted in Der Weisskunig (The White King), one of Emperor Maximilian's illustrated autobiographies. Some armors, made specifically for tournaments fought on foot, included a deep skirt made from steel, known as a tonlet. A handful of these tonlet armors survive in European and American collections: for example, the armor of Henry VIII (1491–1547) in London, or examples for the young Charles V (1500–1558), and Albrecht, Margrave of Brandenburg (1490–1568) in Vienna. The Metropolitan's collection includes an armored skirt (14.25.790 a,b), which once formed part of such a rare tonlet armor; it was likely made around 1510 in Innsbruck, Tyrol, by the court armorer Konrad Seusenhofer (died 1517). It imitates not only the pleated form of the skirt but also the slashes that were ubiquitous in the fashion of the time. The rich texture of brocade is also reproduced through the technique of etching, and traces of gilding are still visible on some parts of the decoration.
Daniel Hopfer and the Hopfer Style
The Augsburg printmaker Daniel Hopfer (1471–1536) introduced aspects of the Italian Renaissance style to German armor decoration through ornamental prints that circulated widely in German-speaking countries and inspired craftsmen of all kind. As a printmaker working almost exclusively in etching, Hopfer was the first to standardize the hitherto heterogeneous German style in the new Italian way. He became one of the most influential German graphic artists of the sixteenth century, playing a major role in introducing the new Italian style and iconography to artist's workshops north of the Alps. Hopfer also played a key role in refining the etching technique for printmaking and for the decoration of armor. The earliest printed etching, only recently discovered in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, Italy—The Battle of Thérouanne from the early 1490s (Metzger 72)—is signed "DANIEL . HOPFER".
Hopfer's great influence on his colleagues makes researching his original etched armor particularly difficult. Only two pieces of forged steel bear the artist's signature: the so-called Ottheinrich-Sword in Nuremberg, a richly decorated blade supposedly made for Elector Otto Heinrich of the Palatinate (1502–1559) around 1535; and a targe (a tournament shield) in the Real Armería in Madrid, which is dated 1536, the year of Hopfer's death. A fluted armor by Lorenz Helmschmid (Augsburg, 1516)—also for Otto Heinrich and now in Vienna—bears an initial on one of the shoulders that could be considered Hopfer's monogram.
Many other works dating from around 1510 to the 1530s have been added to the group of the so-called Hopfer Style. For example, the armor of the Augsburg patrician Bernhard Meuting in Vienna, which is decorated with mermaids, dragons, and other elements common to Italian Renaissance examples. The Metropolitan Museum has quite a substantial collection of armor etching in a style similar to Hopfer's repertoire, including a cuirass with tassets attributed to Kolman Helmschmid (38.143a–d), and the sallet of King Louis II of Hungary (1506–1526) (29.153.1).
The crucial question of which works were created by Hopfer himself and which were simply influenced by his style has not yet been answered conclusively, but this and other queries are the focus of ongoing research in the field. Under the direction of Christian Beaufort-Spontin, the curator in charge of its Department of Arms and Armor, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has started a research project on the etched decoration of German Renaissance armor, with funding provided by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung in Düsseldorf. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum's Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship has funded my related research in its collection, supervised by Stuart W. Pyhrr, and other members of the Department of Arms and Armor.
The work of armor etchers is not easily traced today; only a few names are known, the archives keep silent in most cases. The workshops themselves are long gone, along with the collections of prints and drawings that were once in the possession of these artists, and which formed the basis of their work. Questions remain about the methods of the artists, their training, and how artistic decisions were made. The only things left are the works of art themselves. A close look at a breastplate, a helmet—even an unnoticed part such as a toecap—opens up the lively world of etched Renaissance armor.