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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Decoration of Arms and Armor

With few exceptions, arms and armor of virtually all periods and from all the world’s cultures were decorated to varying degrees. The desire to embellish objects of everyday and special use was naturally extended to those that served such important purposes as obtaining food, self-defense, and maintaining power. Most cultures valued weapons and armor as signs of rank and status, as traditional symbols of the warrior class, and as diplomatic gifts. However, it was the use and function of the individual weapon or armor that determined why, how, and to what extent an object was decorated.

While the equipment of the common man-at-arms was often plain or the decoration kept to a minimum, it was the arms and armor of the higher levels of society—nobility, military commanders, and elite warriors—that would conspicuously be adorned with costly decoration (2008.638.1). In times when wealth equalled power, this degree of decoration was as much an expression of the wearer’s status and rank as it was indicative of the value placed on such arms and armor by the owner. However, on arms and armor for practical use, on the battlefield or for hunting, care was taken that the decoration did not impede function. Only the equipment and accoutrements for tournaments and especially for ceremonial use were sometimes so lavishly decorated that the importance of the decoration began to supercede the function of the actual object. A somewhat different variety is the symbolic decoration that was meant to empower both the object and its owner with magical and apotropaic qualities, to justify claims to power or to denote religious beliefs, education, and sophistication.

In the Museum’s collection of arms and armor, the diversity of decoration of earlier periods and various cultures is represented with such outstanding examples as a Mesopotamian gold and silver axhead (1982.5) of the late third to early second millennium B.C., and a presentation model of a Colt Percussion revolver (1995.336) of the mid-nineteenth century with elegant gold inlay.

Some of the foremost artists of their time—painters, draftsmen, and goldsmiths—were actively engaged in designing arms, armor, and their decoration, or decorating the objects themselves. Cennino Cennini’s famous handbook on artistic techniques, Il libro dell’arte, written around 1400, describes how to make crests for helmets used in tournaments. Many court painters appear to have also been involved in the embellishment and painting of banners and shields. Artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, and Hans Holbein drew elaborate designs for cannons, sword hilts (2000.27), scabbards, armor, and etched decoration of various parts of armor, while field and tournament armors were etched with designs of exquisite quality by printmakers like Daniel Hopfer (1471–1536). Since the sixteenth century, famous goldsmiths and silversmiths such as Bartolomeo Campi, Étienne Delaune, or Elisaeus Libaerts became involved in the designing and decorating—even the production—of armor, sword hilts (2010.165), and firearms (1972.223).

Decoration itself could take many forms. The simplest was the addition of separate decorative and/or symbolical elements to an otherwise strictly functional object or group of objects, for example, the crests on helmets of the European knight and Japanese samurai. More sophisticated decoration involved the mechanical alteration of an object’s shape, form, and surface, or adorning the latter in a variety of artistic techniques and styles with additional materials such as paint, semi-precious and precious metals and stones, textiles, and fur. In many cases, various materials and different artistic techniques might be combined to decorate one object or group of objects.