Germany, Nuremberg. Stamped with the Beschau mark of Nuremburg. Steel, leather, brass.
Private collection, Scandinavia
The ‘Maximilian’ style of armour, with its bold forms emphasised by more or less continuous patterns of fluted decoration, retains today the same strong visual appeal that it must clearly have enjoyed in the time of its use. As its name suggests, it was introduced in the reign of the Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519), the self-styled ‘Last of the Knights’. On the earliest examples of the style, made in Innsbruck about 1505, the flutes that were the defining feature of the fashion consisted of no more than a few sprays of embossed ribs on the cuirass, intended to replicate in steel the pleating of the contemporary civilian doublet. In the three decades that followed, however, when other South German centres such as Augsburg, Nuremberg and Landshut began to adopt the style, the flutes gradually grew in number, eventually extending over the greater part of the surface of the armour in close-set groups.
Although the ‘Maximilian’ style of decoration is often thought to have been confined to the first third of the 16th century, it in fact enjoyed a brief revival in the earliest years of the following century with the production in Nuremberg of a small, closely-related group of high-quality fluted armours represented among other things by our gauntlets. In contrast to their predecessors, these 17th century armours had the crests of their flutes separated by flat rather than concave grounds, and their main edges less boldly roped. In addition, their subsidiary edges were often cut with a series of castellations. Particularly characteristic of these later armours are their cuirasses. In contrast to those of the early 16th century which had been of a rounded form, the cuirasses of the early 17th century are medially ridged and have shallow V-shaped waist-lines. More than that, however, they are formed in two pieces with a plackart overlapping the lower part of the breast-plate proper. The former which is typically attached to the latter by a heart-shaped rivet, narrows to its upper end which is fretted and engraved in a manner reminiscent of the late 15th century ‘gothic’ breast-plate. The centre of the neck-opening of the breast-plate proper is or was formerly fitted with a pierced stud to which some overlying defence – perhaps a reinforcing breast-plate – could be attached. The tassets of the 17th century cuirasses are distinguished from their predecessors by the rounded rather than square form of their lower ends.
Among extant elements of this distinctive group of armours are two cuirasses in the Wallace Collection, London (cat. nos. A 26-7), one in the Schweizerishes Landesmuseum, Zurich, one in the Tøjhusmuseet, Copenhagen (cat. no. D14), one in the Royal Armouries, Leeds (inv. nos 1288-9), and another formerly in the Hebray and Baron collections, all of which have their plackarts pierced and engraved with a double-headed eagle. It is perhaps significant that the Tøjhusmuseet armour and one of the Wallace Collection’s armours is stated to have been taken from the Imperial Armoury in Vienna, by occupying Napoleonic troops in the early 19th century, while the second of the Wallace Collection’s armours is stated to have been similarly looted from Schönbrunn, Vienna, in the same period.
On the other hand, a cuirass in the Musée de l’Armée, Paris (cat. no. G.292), and a detached breast-plate and a back-plate in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (inv. nos W1342 and W2111) all have their plackarts decorated with a two-tailed mermaid thought to refer to the arms of the Nuremberg patrician family of Rieter von Kornberg. Significance may in that case be attached to the fact that the cuirass in the Royal Armouries referred to above as having its plackart pierced with the double-headed eagle, has its back-plate pierced and engraved with a sea-lion, thought to represent the arms of the Nuremberg patrician family of Imhof. The eagled is charged with the initials I.G.I.S., and the sea-lion accompanied by the date 1612.
Also belonging to this group of pieces is a breast-plate in the Armeria Reale, Turin (cat. no. C22), having its plackart pierced with the Virgin and Child and St Christopher, and a back-plate pierced with a fleur-de-lis, also recorded on the back-plate of one of the Wallace Collection’s cuirasses (cat. no. A26).
Because of the presence of the double-headed eagle in the decoration of no less than five of the cuirasses recorded above, it has been suggested that they may have been made for use by a select imperial guard: a hypothesis that may to an extent be encouraged by the purported provenance of three of them from the imperial collections in Vienna. However, the identification in the decoration of two of the cuirasses, including one of those bearing the device of the double-headed eagle, of arms possibly attributable to a members of Nuremberg patrician families might more readily encourage one to look to that city not only for their manufacture, but also for their use. As a free city of the Holy Roman Empire, Nuremberg would doubtless have felt justified in making use of the imperial device. It has in fact been suggested, because of the date 1612 inscribed on the back-plate of the Royal Armouries cuirass, that the group of armours under discussion was made for wear by a guard of burgers assembled for the visit to the city by the newly-crowned Emperor Matthias. However, it is questionable whether so many armours of such high quality could have been produce in the time available, especially as the Emperor initially expressed a reluctance to visit the city. The fact that the fretted ornament of their cuirasses shows some variation in their design, and the Nuremberg quality-control marks with which they are struck can be seen to have been produced by several different punches, rather suggests that the armours to which they belonged represent the remains of more than just a single special order. Nevertheless, the close similarity in style and detail of the surviving elements, taken together with their exceptionally fine quality, make it likely that the armour represent the equipment of an elite guard or military corps that for some reason favoured the fashions of an earlier age.
Although the highly distinctive group of cuirasses discussed above have been familiar to the students for many years now, nothing very much is known about the other elements that would originally have accompanied them. Our gauntlets help to fill that gap. Closely resembling them are a pair in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (unnumbered), with similarly castellated edges to their fluted portions. Related gauntlets in the Musée de l’Armée, Paris (cat. no. G. 18), and the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery (acc. no. ’39-65), suggest, however, that some variation was to be found in the composition of the armours in question as they have unusually long, flaring cuffs, presumably intended to be worn without vambraces. Interestingly, one of the cuirasses in the Wallace Collection (cat. no. A 26) is accompanied by the large, asymmetrical pauldrons and fully enclosed vambraces of a kind intended to be used with a couched lance, although neither that cuirass nor any of the others discussed above are pieced with holes for the attachment of a lance-rest. In fact the pauldrons, vambraces and cuirass of the Wallace Collection’s armour are in each case struck with a different version of the Nuremberg quality-control mark, showing that even though they clearly derive from the same series and were presumably preserved together they were not originally intended to be worn with one another. The series of lames protecting the insides of the elbows of each vambrace once again have castellated edges.
Our gauntlets are notable in retaining their original buff leather lining-gloves. Interestingly, they are formed in such a way as to separate the third and fourth fingers from the first and second. This is a fashion sometimes seen in gauntlets of the first half of the sixteenth century, as for example those shown as part of a fluted armour depicted in Lucas Cranach’s ‘Judgement of Paris’ in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, painted in 1527. Evidently, the makers of the 17th century armours under discussion chose to adopt more than just the fluted decoration of the early 16th century armours that served as their inspiration.
It would seem in fact that at least one cuirass of that early period had its cuirass constructed with the type of fretted plackart discussed above. Now forming part of an armour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc. no. 49.163.1), it is of rounded form, with boldly roped edges and has a concave ground between adjacent flutes. Yet it fauld and tassets are of the same early 17th century shape and character as those discussed above; namely having long rounded tassets and flat grounds between adjacent flutes. The Metropolitan Museum’s cuirass may plausibly have served as the original model for the distinctive group of fluted armours to which our gauntlets belong.
Each formed of a moderately long, flared and round-ended tubular cuff with a hinged inner plate stepped at its lower end and fitted just beneath the step with a short articulated wrist-lame; the outer plate struck at its upper end with the quality-control mark of the city of Nuremberg, decorated over the end of the ulna with a file-roped almond-shaped boss and fitted at its lower edge with six metacarpal-plates connected by a knuckle-plate to three finger-lames separated from one another by similar knuckle-plates decorated in each case with a prominent file-roped transverse rib; the inner end of the fifth metacarpal extended over the first knuckle of the thumb, decorated there with a file-roped boss matching that of the cuff, and fitted just beyond it with a thumb-defence of two scales; the outer face of each gauntlet decorated with close-set longitudinal flutes emphasised by pairs of incised lines and interrupted only by the knuckle-plates and; the main edges of each gauntlet formed with file-roped inward turns accompanied by recessed borders enclosed to the inside by narrow grooves, and the subsidiary edges castellated where the flutes meet them and bordered by pairs of incised lines elsewhere; and each gauntlet retaining its original buff leather lining-glove (split and repaired at points) having the first and second fingers separated from the third and fourth and retained at the wrist by a transverse strap and buckle.
Size: Height 28 cm / 11 in, Width 16 cm / 6.3 in