The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
  • Close-helmet
  • Attributed to Conrad Richter , Armourer
  • Augsburg, Germany
  • 1555
  • Medium-carbon steel, copper alloy, leather, wax, gold, silk and velvet, etched and gilt
  • Weight: 5.62 kg
    Height: 33 cm
    Width: 17 cm
  • A188
  • European Armoury II
Images & Media
Further Reading
  • In 1555, in preparation for a lavish tournament to be held at Vienna, the Emperor Ferdinand I commissioned a series of matching ‘golden garnitures’ for himself and his three sons, the future Emperor Maximilian II, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol and Archduke Charles II of Styria. All four of these rich tournament armours had matching decoration of the most fabulous sort- the steel surfaces were entirely etched with a dense pattern of twisting scrolls and arabesques and fully gilded, producing an almost unheard of level of extravagance. Clad head to toe in dazzling, golden metal, mounted on fierce stallions similarly armoured, the Emperor and his three princes must have seemed more like gods then men, blazing with an almost divine radiance.

    That was precisely the point of tournaments. They were vital opportunities for the nobility to display their wealth and power, two things were manifested physically on the tournament field. Armour served as a vessel for both qualities- the Emperor and his sons wore their riches for all to see while demonstrating their superior fighting abilities in personal combat. The fact that armour of this quality and expense was still used in combat, making it one of the more violent forms of conspicuous consumption, served to emphasise further the very high status of the combatants.

    Like other tournament armours of this period, the golden garnitures would have included a number of exchange pieces designed to allow the armour to be configured for the various kinds of sporting combat. The Wallace Collection helmet testifies to this, being made to be worn in two distinct ways. Front and rear neck plates attach to the base by means of bolts. These plates, for use in foot combat at the barriers, provide a thick additional layer of protection for the neck. The throat was especially vulnerable in this game, which involved powerful thrusting attacks dealt with the spear. A blow to the throat, even from a blunted spear, could easily be lethal. For other uses the neck plates were removed, allowing the helmet also to be worn with a standard gorget, which engaged with the helmet’s lower lip to form a turning-joint in the usual way.

    This helmet has quite obviously been used in combat. The crest and visor are battered with criss-crossing sword-cuts. Indeed, the left side of the brow had become so battered during the armour’s working lifetime that at some point an additional reinforcing plate was added. The reinforcing plate has been skilfully etched and gilt to match, but clearly by a different artist. Upon removal of the brow reinforce, we find the surface underneath scarred by many more blows dealt with edged weapons. The fire-gilded surface, having been protected by the reinforcing plate, remains as pristine as it was in 1555, giving us a tiny glimpse of what this armour must once have looked like. Its mirror-bright, yellow gold finish is an awe-inspiring contrast to the scratched, matte-finish now found on the rest of the helmet.

    The reinforcing plate retains substantial amounts of a coating of beeswax on its interior surface, which has contributed to the perfect preservation of the gilded steel beneath it. The function of this coating may be found in Del Justador (‘The Jouster; 1589-93) by the southern Spanish knight Don Luis Zapata de Chaves (1526-95) who recommended that the inside surfaces of a tournament helmet should be coated with wax ‘so that the clashing or the clamour which results from a blow cannot adversely affect the head’. Certainly this helmet has experienced much clashing and clamour.

    Of the Emperor’s armour, only the Wallace Collection helmet now survives. It can be recognised as the Emperor’s own by the special quality of the etching; the two other fragments from the series are of a slightly inferior quality. The similar close-helmet from one of the other armours is now in the Musée de l’Armée, Paris (H.114) while a visor of exchange, for open foot combat in the champ clos, is in Florence (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, R9.)

    The series has been tentatively attributed to Conrad Richter of Augsburg (c.1520- 1570). Little is known about his life, although we do know that in 1548 he was living in the house of the Augsburg master Anton Peffenhauser, whom he probably served as a journeyman. From 1557 he was working for the Archduke Ferdinand II, Archduke Charles II, and probably also the Emperor Maximilian II, the three princes for whom he is thought to have made three of the four fabled golden garnitures.