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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Techniques of Decoration on Arms and Armor

One important aspect in the study and appreciation of arms and armor is the techniques and methods for their decoration. The wide range of materials used in the creation of these objects is equaled by the varied possibilities for adding to the aesthetic qualities of functional items, either for daily or ceremonial use. The following is a short introduction to some of the more commonly used techniques.

A frequent form of decoration on arms and armor is the coloring of certain areas or the entire surface of an object, by means of paint (25.26.1), lacquer (36.25.81), or covering with textiles (29.154.3) secured to the surface by glue, stitching, or rivets (14.100.172). Surfaces and components made from iron or steel could also be patinated, either by heat or chemically, as well as by gilding (see below).

Heating metal produces a coloration of the surface, which changes from yellow to purple to deep blue as the heat increases. When taken out of the fire at a particular temperature, the metal retains this color. Considerable skill is required to achieve a consistent and even heat patination of large areas (e.g., a breastplate) or groups of objects (e.g., a complete armor, 32.130.6). The favored color for armor, edged weapons, and firearm barrels was a deep blue, in a process referred to as “bluing.” A range of colors could also be produced chemically, using a variety of different recipes, such as a rich brown color that was popular on firearm barrels in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Besides being attractive, patination and painting also inhibit rust on metal surfaces.

In Europe, the technique of decorating arms and armor with paint was certainly known in antiquity, although today no surviving objects appear to date from before the thirteenth century. It is more difficult to establish when textile coverings and heat patination first appeared. Scabbards from swords and daggers are likely to have been covered in fabrics, colored leathers, or fur as early as Egyptian times, if not earlier. The first examples of heat patination seem to appear during the fifteenth century, but the practice may well be much older.

Gilding and Silvering
The application of gold and silver to an object’s surface, generally known as gilding, is another form of coloring. The process traditionally implies the application of a very thin sheet of gold or silver to a surface with the help of an adhesive, usually known as water or oil gilding, or the application of powdered metal suspended in a medium (gold paint or lacquer). A more durable method known as amalgam or “fire” gilding was commonly used on arms and armor. Powdered gold was combined with mercury and applied to the surface and heated to drive off the mercury, leaving the gold bonded to the armor metal surface.

Gilding has been employed since antiquity to decorate practically all types of European, Islamic, and Asian arms and armor. It was sometimes used as the sole means of decoration, but in Renaissance Europe it is was commonly combined with etching and bluing on all types of armor (32.130.6), and shields, edged weapons, staff weapons, and firearms.

Inlay, Damascening, and Encrusting
A common technique for decoration is inlay, often found on wooden stocks of firearms or the metal surfaces of edged weapons and armor. Channels or recessed areas shaped to the desired design are carved or engraved into the surface, then filled with the inlay material. While metal surfaces are usually inlaid with other metals such as gold, silver, or copper alloys, wooden gun stocks can be inlaid with ivory, bone, horn, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, or silver or gold wire (04.3.36 and 1972.223).

While organic material can be held in place with glue or nails, the inlay of metal requires a different technique. First, the sides of the cavity are undercut in a so-called dovetail profile. Then, when a softer inlay material like gold or silver is hammered into the cavity, it will flare into the undercut sides securing the inlay. This inlay technique is sometimes referred to as “true damascening,” a term alluding to Damascus in Syria and the apparent Eastern origins of this technique. An easier and cheaper technique is to cover a roughened or cross-hatched surface with gold and silver foil or wire. This is also called damascening, or sometimes “false damascening.” In both techniques, the inlaid or onlaid metal is generally burnished flush with the surface. When larger quantities of the gold or silver inlay are deliberately left to protrude in relief above the object’s surface, the decoration is called encrusting. All of these techniques can be combined for a spectacular effect (23.232.2).

The technique of decorating arms and armor with inlay reaches back far into antiquity. It was certainly known during the Mycenaean period, when daggers were inlaid with patinated metal, and it remained one of the most common methods of decorating arms and armor until modern times.

Enameling refers to several techniques that use vitreous paste fused to a metallic background. Recesses on a metal object, either cells formed by soldering wire to the base (cloisonné) or simple cuts or grooves (champlevé), are filled with colored glass paste. The object is then fired so that the powdered paste will melt and bond with the metal base. Finally, the surface of the object is polished smooth. Due to the expensive and fragile nature of enamel, it is almost exclusively found on weapons for ceremony and presentation (1983.413).

Rudimentary methods of enameling seem to have been known as early as the second century B.C., and were used until the early medieval period. One of these methods involved setting cut glass pieces into the metal recesses (garnet cloisonné) and was used to adorn the fittings and buckles of Anglo-Saxon armor and sword belts. Although true enameling was a popular means of decoration during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it is infrequently found on arms and armor and is mostly encountered on the hilts of English Neoclassical presentation swords (26.145.315).

Embossing is the practice of raising a design on a metal plate from the inside so that the design appears in relief on the outside (repoussé). These designs can range from simple ridges, flutes, and geometrical patterns to elaborate figurative designs of sculptural quality (23.141). Leather objects such as shields or scabbards could be embossed using the same technique, but the designs could also be stamped or pressed into the surface using dies and molds. The latter technique was also applied to sheets of gold or silver, which would then be applied to the actual object. The raised design was finished by detailing the motif from the outside with a chisel (chasing).

Known in Europe since the Bronze Age, embossing was widely used on armor in the ancient world, especially in Greece, but was comparatively rare during the Middle Ages. It was gradually revived—first in leather—during the fourteenth century, and seems to have made its reappearance on plate armor first with ridges and fluting at the beginning of the fifteenth century, developing into more elaborate forms of figurative embossing during the first half of the sixteenth century (17.190.1720).

Engraving and Pointillé Decoration
Engraving is a technique by which decorative patterns or inscriptions are cut into the metal surface with a sharp pointed tool of hardened metal (burin). When the decoration is not cut into the metal but formed by a pattern of dots punched into the surface, the process is known as pointillé.

Engraving, in addition to painting, is probably one of the oldest forms of decoration on arms and armor, and can be found on Stone Age and Bronze Age weapons. Although comparatively rare on armor, it is more often found on the blades and hilts of edged weapons, and from the fifteenth century to the present day, it is frequently encountered as a favored means of decorating firearms (1993.415).

Similar to engraving, a mechanical process, the chemical process of etching entails the cutting of decorative patterns into metal using a mild acid. The artist would cover the surface with an acid-resistant coating of paint or wax, and then scratch the desired decoration into the coating. A weak acid was applied, and the decorative pattern (or its background) was etched into the metal’s surface wherever the coating had been removed. Visual contrast could be enhanced by application of a dark substance, such as lampblack, into the recessed areas, or by gilding the background.

Examples of etched decoration appear on sword blades as early as the late thirteenth century, although the technique may in fact be much older. Etching as a means of decorating arms and armor appears to have led to the discovery of etching as a printmaking technique. In return, sixteenth-century etched decoration of arms and armor was sometimes copied directly from popular prints. Quite elaborate and complex designs could be produced, including pictorial scenes (33.164) and inscriptions.

Fretting and Openwork
Decorative patterns can be cut into the surface or edges of plate. Fretting refers to cut designs along the edge of metal plates. The technique of cutting out decorative motifs, sometimes employed to reveal an underlying layer of metal or textile, is referred to as openwork.

These methods of decoration are today most commonly associated with late fifteenth-century German and western European armor, the edges of which were decoratively cut with sometimes elaborate motifs reminiscent of Gothic tracery. The techniques of fretting and openwork are also used for decorating Japanese armor and weapons mounts, as well as Islamic armor.

Carving and Chiseling
The decorative carving of weapons dates back as far as the Stone Age. The wooden or ivory parts of weapons, such as dagger and sword hilts (26.145.243), can be carved in low or high relief, sometimes in the round, like sculpture, as can saddles and the stocks of crossbows and firearms (1972.223). On armor it is rare and found only in the shape of carved crests, such as on Japanese helmets. When the technique of carving is applied to metal, as on sword hilts or the locks of firearms, the decoration is usually referred to as “cut steel” or “chiseled steel.”

Pattern Welding and “Damascus Steel” or “Watered Steel”
Pattern welding and Damascus steel are commonly confused. Pattern welding is a technique in which bundles of iron and steel bars are arranged alternately, twisted together, and then forge-welded into a single block. This block is then hammered out, resulting in the formation of a distinct and complex contrasting pattern on the object’s surface. Polishing and etching with a mild acid heighten the visual contrast between the metals, creating a wavy pattern.

Damascus steel refers to a process in which a similar wavy, or “watered,” pattern is produced in the steel prior to forging using specific smelting and crucible techniques. The process is so named for the erroneous belief that this metal originated in Damascus, Syria, although this technique was practiced in the Islamic Middle East from the Middle Ages. True Damascus steel is the result of variations in crystalline structures within the metal itself. These crystals align to form visible patterns during forging. Although the term “watered steel” is often applied to pattern-welded objects, it might be more accurately used for Damascus steel.

Objects most commonly made of pattern-welded steel (55.46.1) or Damascus steel (1993.14) are sword blades, which were held in high esteem throughout the ancient world, early medieval Europe, the Islamic Near East, and Asia. Other common examples of pattern welding include the barrels of firearms (1993.415) and the blades of the typical Malayan and Indonesian dagger (kris).