Pair of Ear Guards from a Shaffron (Horse's Head Defense)

German, probably Augsburg

Not on view

Long overlooked in the Museum's collection, these unusual ear guards are exceptional in taking the form of stylized dolphins. Each dolphin is forged in high relief from a style plate with an outward-turned flange at the base that is pierced with a series of rivet holes through which it was attached to the shaffron. Each dolphin has a bulbous, furled brow with ridges that extend down either side of the face; eyes; a rippled snout with upturned end; and a mouth. When mounted, each would have faced upward, its brow facing forward and the horse's ear contained within its mouth. The ear guards have never been etched and show no signs of surface coloring such as bluing, blackening, gilding, or damascening. They therefore may have been intended to be left "white" (brightly polished). The plates have suffered heavy corrosion over the years, resulting in a number of small holes or cracks that were filled with lead or riveted patches in the nineteenth century.

These ear guards belong to the same Renaissance tradition of armor all'eroica as the shaffron of the dauphin Henry of France (cat. no. 7; acc. no. 04.3.253), in which elements such as helmets, pauldrons, and shaffrons were transformed into fantastic zoomorphic creatures. The choice of dolphins may indicate that the shaffron and possibly other parts of the horse armor were decorated with aquatic imagery. In the Renaissance decorative vocabulary, dolphin imagery, based on classical Roman examples, was incorporated into fashionable fifteenth- and sixteenth-century ornament. Apart from their obvious heraldic reference to the dauphin of France, dolphins were associated in antiquity and the Renaissance with love (as creatures on which Venus often rides), music and poetry (for their association with both Apollo and Arion), and haste (for their speed), as well as with Neptune and water in general. Without imputing too much specific symbolic value to their iconography, however, the depiction of dolphins here surely reflects the armorer's (or his patron's) choice of a classical theme and a metalworking technique (repoussé) that was directly associated with antique armor. Nevertheless, the dolphin is employed in a purely Renaissance manner, as the horse's ears are playfully transformed into these engaging sea creatures.

A useful comparison can be made between these objects and the dolphinshaped tail piece worked in high relief, with etched and gilt details, that forms part of a well-known bard in the Real Armería, Madrid (fig. 31; Real Armería, Madrid, inv. no. A.149). Embossed with scenes from the lives of Hercules and Samson, the bard is attributed to Kolman Helmschmid (1470/71-1532), the leading armorer in Augsburg at the time, and is thought to have been made for Emperor Maximilian I about 1517-18. Apart from its general classical associations, the tail piece is not thematically related to the bard's iconography and is thus essentially ornamental. Another dolphin-shaped tail piece, made in Germany about 1540, is in the Wallace Collection, London (A 448), and attests to the popularity there of this theme on horse armor.

No surviving shaffron with dolphin-shaped ear guards is known. Although they were invariably decorated to match the shaffron, ear guards in fact rarely deviate from the standard form. The notable exception is found in a series of shaffrons in which the ears are fashioned as curled ram's horns. This innovation was apparently introduced to Augsburg by Kolman Helmschmid about 1520 on a bard made for Emperor Charles V (Real Armería, Madrid, A. 37; New York 1991, no. 18, ill.) and subsequently adopted by Kunz Lochner (1510–1567) of Nuremberg on a series of shaffrons produced in the 1540s and 1550s. The shaffron on the armor that Lochner made for Duke Johann Ernst of Saxony-Coburg, dated 1548 and now in the Metropolitan Museum (fig. 18; acc. no. 32.69), once had ram's-horn ear pieces, but these were presumably damaged and have since been filed down to look like conventional ears.

Although embossing as a technique for the decoration of armor is more frequently associated with Renaissance Italy, the examples cited above demonstrate that German armorers employed it earlier and with equal skill. In fact, one of the earliest and most ambitious examples of embossed parade armor in the heroic style is German: the dolphin-shaped helmet made by Helmschmid for Emperor Charles V about I530 (Real Armería, Madrid, A. 59). The Museum's ear guards belong to the same tradition and find their parallel in the low-relief embossed creatures added to eye guards and nose plates on German shaffrons, including those on Helmschmid's shaffron of about 1526 for the future Emperor Ferdinand I (Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, A349) and a South German shaffron of about 1530 in the Musee de l'Armée, Paris (G552). The ear guards probably also date to this period.

Pair of Ear Guards from a Shaffron (Horse's Head Defense), Steel, German, probably Augsburg

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.