A Full-Sized Heavy Sporting Crossbow, or Ganze Rüstung, late 16th century

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Item ref: 3925

  • Central Europe, probably the eastern German states of Saxony or Thuringia.
  • Steel, wood, staghorn, bone, corded hemp, and wool.
  • 75 x 84 cm


Thomas Del Mar Ltd., 30th July 2020, lot 207, ‘The Property of an Important Collection’

The large proportions of this crossbow categorise it under the German term Ganze Rüstung (‘full-size equipment’). These heavy bows had their origin in warfare. Their use in hunting in the late 16th century was restricted by their weight to the pursuit of boar and stags driven towards the sportsmen in prepared enclosures. By this period of crossbow development, the earlier long angular trigger had become merely a guard for a small trigger, its mechanism set by the insertion of rods or prickers carried separately. In this instance, again characteristic of the period, the trigger folds to enable the cord loop of a spanning device, a cranequin, to fit over the rear half of the stock and engage with the pair of steel lugs projecting from the sides of the stock.

The abounding imagery displayed in the decoration of this crossbow is that of romantic love, fertility and good fortune, the ingredients of a lasting marriage. Themes such as these naturally point to this bow having been made specifically as a prestigious wedding gift, the giving of luxurious weaponry to mark such a celebratory occasion not unusual in the 16th century among the landed classes within the German orbit. The marriage theme is furthered by the inclusion of two coats-of-arms, almost certainly those of the two families involved in the union, together with male and female bust portraits, the figures presented as though dressed for a wedding, very much in the finery of the period.

The decoration of the stock (or tiller) closely follows the elaborate style in which the stocks of pistols, long guns and their matching powder-flasks were fashionably decorated between circa 1580-1600, notably among the gunmakers of Saxony and Thuringia. The taste for this very close-set inlaid interlace of tightly spiralling ballflower tendrils spread eastwards also to neighbouring Bohemia and Silesia, where it remained an element of the stocking of crossbows and firearms as late as the early 18th century.


The underside is engraved with the female personification of Fortuna, Roman Goddess of Good Fortune. Towards the trigger-mechanism, an elaborate leafy arrangement of ripening figs is pierced at its centre by the aperture for the rod inserted to set the mechanism, while at the rear an amorous couple, less formally clothed, embrace above a heart-shaped emblem at their feet. The stock is capped by a staghorn terminal engraved with a further arrangement of figs. The abundant use of this fruit in the decoration of the stock serves as an appropriate background to the allusions to marriage which exist throughout. Figs are of course a classical and renaissance symbol of Female Fertility, and are an attribute both of the Goddess Venus and of Bacchus, God of Wine, Merriment and Physical Excess.