A visit to the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer in Vienna
To Vienna, said my wife, I’d very much like to go to Vienna again. So I invited her there as a birthday present. I myself had to go to Vienna urgently too in order to visit the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, the vast collection of arms and armour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I wanted to see the famous riding harness of archduke Siegmund (which, however, he most likely had never worn at all after his cousin Maximilian had given it to him as a wedding gift). According to the museum catalogue, this harness is the most ample, precious, and complete one dating from the latest German Gothic style. It was manufactured about 1485 by Emperor Maximilian’s I court armourer Lorenz Helmschmied. Owing particularly to the helmet of this harness, I devoted myself to knights and their gear of steel already in my earliest years. I have always wanted to possess a helmet such as this one. Three decades later, the harness became indeed the pattern for the replica of my own suit of armour. I decided to dispense with the exuberant opulence of decoration and surface detailing and go for a significantly simpler (yet more affordable) version which nevertheless shows a close resemblance to the original. The gauntlets, however, turned out to be perhaps a little too clumsy.
When I had been in the Wallace Collection in London shortly before, I had made the unpleasant experience of not being allowed to take photos. A little later, I had found the collection of arms and armour of the Deutsches Historisches Museums in Berlin completely unaccessible due to renovation works. So I considered a phonecall in advance to be a good idea in order to avoid any possible disappointment. I talked to a certain Dr. Beaufort-Spontin, the director of the collection. Yes, the so-called archduke Siegmund is there, yes, you may take photos, and, please, do come and visit me in my office next Monday at 2 p.m., he said.
Instantly, I became quite excited and began to count the hours.
Finally, I was in Vienna, finally, I went to the museum, finally, I stood in front of him. So-called Siegmund. Old buddy. By far more magnificent in the original than could possibly be assumed by looking at even the best of images. Every single plate, even the most minute one, was manufactured with the utmost delicacy. Not only was the surface decorated by a vast number of flutings but also by plenty of punctuated lines and fine filigree-work. The details were so delicate that they could only be appreciated on closest inspection. Only the fallen-down upper plate of the bevor caused a little irritation since the archduke looked somewhat dull with an open mouth.
It was time to meet with Hr. Dr. Beaufort. As a little present I gave him a couple of photoprints showing myself in my own suit of armour. "Hum, hum, yes, yes, very nice, very nice. Considering the price you paid, of course. For a third of your complete harness the armourer Walter Suckert has made us a pair of mitten gauntlets. You’ll have to see these later, they are being gilded. And now take your photographs with you, we’re going to show them to our restorers."
The workshop was a spacious well-lit room, everything was quiet and clean. An oriental sabre and a roundshield of steel rested on some white tables, a vice held a single upright rapier blade without the hilt.
Good afternoon, Mrs. Restorer, good afternoon. Mr. Restorer.
Would you care for some orange drops? Yes please, thank you.
"Hum, yes, very nice" said the restorer when she examined my photographs. "The gauntlets, however, seem to be a little too clumsy, perhaps. I understand, you do actually wear your armour? Even to fight in it?"
"Yes, indeed" I said "it is only quite inconvenient that the visor crashes down time and again when I’m being hit on the helmet, thus blinding me instantly for moments."
Hr. Beaufort said: "But there were catches to keep visors open, weren’t there?"
"Not with the German sallet" I answered presumptuously, "not to my knowledge, that is."
The restorer: Yes, there were catches, although they were located on the lower brim of the helmet and prevented the visor from opening incidentally, for instance by the impact of a lance thrust. But she didn’t know anything about any upper lock. At least she couldn't remember.
"Let's have a look then."
"Have a look?"
"We’ll just open a show-case and get a helmet out. And you are coming too" Hr. Beaufort told the two restorers.
Because he was very well able to open the show-cases, he confided in me, but he had always trouble when closing them again. That should be best left to the others.
But before, I had to marvel at the magnificent replacement gauntlets by Walter Suckert. They stuck, freshly leaf-gilded, on jars of jam for drying. Afterwards we put on white gloves in order not to endanger the valuable pieces of the exhibition by perspiring hands.
When I asked how the numerous suits of armour were protected against corrosion, I was told that they were painted with linseed oil which was allowed five days for drying. A somewhat lengthier procedure than my cleaning with a Ballistol-soaked cloth.
Before we finally made our way to the collection, I briefly had to wield the sabre and to admire the Italian roundshield from the 16th century. It had been meticulously freed from layers of oil-paint and restored to its former figurative abundance.
Finally, we were on our way, pushing a dinner-wagon like the ones to be found in youth hostels. As I was promised, we opened a show-case and got a helmet out, a so-called sallet combination that was made about 1495 by Lorenz Helmschmied for Maximilian I. Within the blink of an eye, the helmet sat on my head.
This specimen however was a special manufacture with both parts, helmet and bevor, revolving around the same visor pivot. This particular model did indeed have a couple of catches but only for the multi-part bevor. There was no lock to keep the visor open. The helmet was taken off my head and put back in its rack. When I turned around, the so-called Siegmund lacked his helmet.
THE helmet lay before me, on white cellulose on the dinner-wagon. I was allowed to inspect it closely. I was allowed to touch it, to pat and to caress it. I was allowed to lift it and to open the visor. No upper lock. But a strange bow was riveted on eye-level to both sides of the front opening. The front of the bow increased in breadth and showed a tip corresponding to the shape of the visor. Nobody was able to explain the use or advantage of this bow. To prevent the visor from falling too far down? For that reason, there is a catch on the right hand side. An addition of later times in order to provide more support for the visor? It had already become quite loose so it was not possible to keep it open. The reason might be the voluminous and bulbous skull of the helmet that might have put some considerable stress on the pivots of the visor. All in all, the helmet showed some more traces of usage. The fleur-de-lys ornament made of brass that ran around the lower brim was damaged here and there, and the whole surface showed tiny scratches. The result of cleaning measures to keep idle soldiers of the k.k. monarchy busy. They had been appointed to polishing the pieces of the arms and armour collection and had not always shown painstaking care. That was even more obvious on some other pieces of armour.
According to the catalogue, there used to be a case that held a feather on the left side. However, there was neither a trace of such a case, nor even a hole or a rivet. On the other hand, there was a small keyhole-like opening on top of the comb of the helmet which might have had held some feathers. The comb itself was bordered by decorative lines of delicate punches. More of these lines ran around the whole helmet on the level of the eyeslit. The interior clearly showed distinct hammer strokes, sometimes remarkably rough.
If I would like to wear this helmet too, I was asked. Good heavens. What a question. Since the helmet was void of any lining (except from a slim band of dark leather on the level of the eyeslit) and since it was irresponsible to put it on my bare head Hr. Beaufort produced from who-knows-where a cushion slip. That provided enough protection and padding. Then I was crowned with the most magnificent knight’s helmet of the entire world.
Unfortunately, it had to be put back finally. On this occasion the bevor of the so-called archduke Siegmund was closed.
Since the visor of this marvellous helmet refused to stay open without manual aid, and since said bow parted the face in a most unhandsome way it was considered necessary to try yet another sallet for further reference. This one, another one from the show-case, was a helmet that was allegedly produced by Hans Grünewalt between 1480 and 1485 for Maximilian. It had a functioning visor that would stay open voluntarily, there was no strange bow but a single catch for the visor on the lower brim of the helmet. When we opened it, we noticed a couple of formerly hidden brownish stains. It was not entirely clear on first sight whether these indicated residues from the linseed oil or even rust. That had to be checked upon a thorough inspection later.
After this helmet was stashed away also, I was asked to try one of the swords, one that was termed a Gothic riding sword from South Germany dated ca. 1495. The blade and the hilt which was decorated with brass and horn were in pristine condition. A remarkable detail were flat sine curved thickenings shortly before the point of the blade, presumably a means to strengthen the blade when thrusting.
Meanwhile, three hours had passed, and my wife was freezing in front of the museum. The next guests were approaching, and so I bid a very hearty farewell to Hr. Beaufort. I stepped outside and blissfully embraced my wife.
Katalog der Leibrüstkammer
I. Teil, Der Zeitraum von 500 bis 1500
Verlag Anton Schroll & Co., Wien
Sallet combination A 110: S. 115f, Abb. 43
Suit of armour A 62: S. 108ff, Abb. 34, 35
Sallet A 60: S. 97
Gothic riding sword A 143: S. 186, Abb. 96
A famous suit of armour with a somewhat dull expression on the face...
... and without any face at all
A gold suit of armour - still lacking hands
A sallet-bevor combination, specially manufactured for a future emperor
The same, sideview
A sallet in its show-case, eagerly awaiting to be moved about
Photographer, reflecting himself in front of a Gothic riding sword