Can a man wearing steel plates be graceful and elegant? From the look of this armor, the answer is yes. Every inch of the upper body is shielded from harm. But the arms are still slender and the waist trim. Delicate designs summon a picture of high society, not the mud-spattered mess of a battlefield. Make no mistake though this armor was meant to keep the man inside alive in the heat of a fight.
Northern Italy Half armor, about 1570-80 Steel, leather, cloth The Minneapolis Institute of Art
A soldier's armor had to shield him against his enemies weapons and still let him move freely enough to fight. In early medieval Europe, most soldiers wore mail shirts made of tiny interlocking metal rings. These flexible garments stopped the cutting blades of swords and battle-axes yet allowed a soldier move about easily.
However, as arms makers invented new weapons, armor changed. Blades had bounced off mail, but arrows shot from a crossbow could pierce a mail shirt, and a blow from a mace (a kind of club) could crush a soldier's bones. So warriors started wearing solid metal plates over their mail shirts. By the 1300s, overlapping plates of armor covered nearly every part of a warrior's body. A full armor weighed 45 to 55 pounds, about as much as a six-year-old child. Hinged joints made it surprisingly flexible one famous knight could climb up the underside of a ladder while wearing his full armor.
Full armor worked best when the warrior was fighting on horseback. But changes in weapons during the 1400s made foot soldiers, or infantry, increasingly important. Because they needed to move quickly, foot soldiers typically wore a half armor like this one, covering just their upper bodies. They would also have worn glovelike metal gauntlets to protect their hands.
This shirt is made of tiny metal rings linked together. It protected a medieval warrior from cuts and gashes while also letting him move freely. Western Europe, Mail shirt, 15th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A knight fought on horseback. He wore full armor that covered everything except his buttocks and the backs of his thighs so he could sit on his horse. Germany, Armor, about 1520
The many pieces of an armor each have a name.
Common soldiers wore plain armor issued from a city's storeroom the armory. An officer, however, purchased his own armor. It not only protected him in battle, but also displayed his wealth and status. Although decorated armor was costly, being prepared for battle was part of a nobleman's duty.
During the Renaissance (1400s and 1500s), armor was sometimes decorated with scenes from the Bible or with military designs from ancient Greece and Rome. On the front of this half armor, the biblical heroine Judith appears dressed as a Roman soldier. She holds a sword and the head of Holofernes, the general she killed to save her city. If an armor was made to order for a particular person, family emblems or personal mottoes might be included.
Often the customer lived far away from where the armor was made. Noblemen across Europe wore armor produced in famous workshops located in northern Italy and Germany. This Italian-made half armor, though ornate, was meant for battle. But it would also have served a nobleman in peacetime, as dress for official ceremonies, civic festivals, or portraits.
The biblical heroine Judith appears on the breastplate of this armor.
The shape and decoration of armor sometimes reflected popular clothing styles. A fashionable man in northern Italy in the 1570s might have worn an outfit like this one. Gentleman’s Attire. Page from The Milanese Tailor’s Handbook.
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Some armors were made for festival tournaments rather than actual battles. Such mock battles could be very dangerous. This helmet in the shape of a face has deep cuts on one side. Germany, Helmet with grotesque mask visor, about 1520-25. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Making armor began with processing iron ore into steel, a lighter and harder metal than pure iron. The famous armor centers of Germany and Italy were near rich deposits of iron ore.
An armorer forged the steel into many small plates, no two alike. Blackened from the forge, the parts went to the polisher. A smooth, glancing surface helped turn aside enemy blows.
The decorator used a technique called etching. He painted designs on the steel plates with wax or varnish and then dipped the plates in acid. The acid ate away at the metal wherever it was not coated. Rubbed with a mixture of soot and linseed oil, these etched areas turned black, completing the design. Finally, a finisher put the pieces together with rivets and straps and added padding under the plates.
As in other times, military technology was soon put to other uses. Artists seized upon the armor maker's technique of etching metal, and etching has remained an important printmaking method to this day.
Rivets, hinges, and straps join the many individual plates of armor.
The tassets of this half armor are each made of one piece of steel decorated to look like many small plates joined together.
Albrecht Dürer was among the printmakers to adopt the armorer's technique of etching metal plates in the early 1500s. Albrecht Dürer, The Cannon, 1518, etching
The designs on this armor were painted on the metal with a wax or varnish resist. When dipped in acid, the metal was eaten away wherever it was not coated. Rubbed with a mixture of soot and linseed oil, these areas turned black, completing the design. Create a similar effect using a simpler resist technique. Draw a design on light-colored construction paper with white wax crayon. Then paint over your drawing with black paint thinned with water. Watch your design emerge as the wax crayon resists the watery paint.
Body armor is hinged to allow the joints of the body to move. How many different ways can the arms and torso move? Identify the joints involved and research how they function. How does the design of this armor reflect the way the joints move?
What was going on in Europe at the time this armor was made? Use the library to research the decade of the 1570s. Was it peaceful or war-torn? How might a European nobleman have spent his days?