The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
  • Morion
  • Unknown Artist / Maker
  • Nuremberg, Germany
  • c. 1580
  • Iron or steel, bronze and gold, etched and gilt
  • Height: 30 cm
    Weight: 1.35 kg
  • Stamp: 'N'
  • A116
  • European Armoury III
Images & Media
Further Reading
  • One of the greatest historical collections of arms and armour was that which, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, formed the arsenal or Rüstkammer in Dresden of the Dukes of Saxony, of the House of Wettin. The Duke of Saxony was one of a group of seven high-ranking noblemen who each held the title of ‘Prince Elector’ and who held the responsibility of selecting the Holy Roman Emperor, this title not being automatically hereditary. The Duke of Saxony, who served as Imperial Archmarshal, was joined by the other hereditary Prince Electors: the King of Bohemia (Archbutler); the Margrave of Brandenburg (Archchamberlain); the Count Palatinate of the Rhine (Archsteward) and the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier. As befitted such a powerful Prince, the Saxon armoury was legendary for its size and quality, and in 1831 it was made into a historical museum. This did not however prevent it from being repeatedly plundered; in the 1830s helmets from its stores were being used as theatrical props at the State Opera House in Dresden; when its importance was recognised, this material, along with a great many other pieces, found its way onto the commercial market. After the sequestering of the former royal collections following the First World War, the Weimar Republic held several fundraising sales of pieces selected from what was now the Historisches Museum in Dresden, while the jousts and parades organised for Hitler’s medieval festival of 1937 also drew on a great deal of equipment from the old Saxon armoury. The armoury was evacuated during the Second World War and thus saved from total destruction, only to be confiscated by the Soviet Union. Partial restitutions began after 1958, only for the then East German government to resume sales from the Dresden Rüstkammer in the 1970s. Thanks to this long history of ransacking, today high-quality arms and armour from the Saxon court can be found in museums and private collections all over the world.

    Many of the dispersed arms from Dresden were originally commissioned to equip the palace guards maintained by the Prince Electors of Saxony in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most famous of whom was the elite Trabantenleibgarde. These trusted bodyguards were equipped by the Elector August I with flamboyant uniforms and armour in black and gold, the heraldic colours of Saxony. This rich apparel, along with the fine-quality weaponry which went with it, was maintained and perhaps added to by August’s successors Christian I (r. 1586-91) and Christian II (r. 1591-1611). While many public museum collections contain Saxon guard material, the group now in the Wallace Collection is especially extensive and well-preserved.

    The dashing black and gold morions of the Trabanten guard are today perhaps their best-known attribute. Although these helmets were in their basic form entirely typical and unremarkable, the Trabanten series is easily identified by its distinctive etched and gilt decoration even when, as is the case with many surviving examples, the black surface finish has been lost. The ornamental scheme consists of large circular cartouches on the front, back and sides of the skull, with smaller versions positioned centrally on either side of the high medial comb. The cartouches on the comb contain the heraldic arms of the Archmarshalcy of the Holy Roman Empire on the left side and those of the Dukes of Saxony on the right. The large cartouche on one side of the skull is filled with a depiction of Gaius Mucius and the burning brazier, while the other carries a representation of Marcus Curtius before the flaming chasm (some helmets carry the former subject on the left, the latter on the right, and others are arranged vice versa). The stories from which both of these scenes derive are essentially lessons in courage, duty and loyalty- apt subjects for the equipment of trusted bodyguards. Gaius Mucius was a mythical Roman youth who, during the Etruscan siege of Rome in the sixth century BC, tried to assassinate the Etruscan king Lars Porsena. He was captured and threatened with torture if he did not reveal all details of the Roman murder plot. In response Mucius thrust his right hand into a burning brazier, convincingly demonstrating that he had no fear of pain. The king was so moved by this act that he freed Mucius and ceased his attack on Rome, Mucius being subsequently known as ‘Scaevola’ (‘left hand’), reminding us that the injury he endured was no small thing. The story of Marcus Curtius is similarly fiery, although with a less happy ending for the protagonist. A bottomless flaming pit or chasm opened in the midst of the Forum in Rome. The augurs (clairvoyant priests) prophesied that the pit would only close after Rome’s most precious treasure was cast into it. After all manner of material possessions had been thrown into it, to no avail, the young Marcus Curtius declared that Rome’s most precious treasure was not gold, jewels, or any precious object, but rather the loyalty and prowess of her warriors. Marcus, fully armed, then jumped his horse into the chasm and was lost, but the gaping maw of the pit then closed and disappeared.