Gold armor 2: What else glitters?

Hello again, dear readers. I actually wrote the sequel post I intended for once. Part 1 was The first of many questions: Whither gilding? which asks “Why is there so much artwork of gold-colored armor in late fifteenth century chronicle manuscripts?” but finds no answer.

Some additional questions are “Was there a form of gold-colored armor that was available to or affordable for the average man-at-arms?” and “Does the presence or commonality of gold armor mean anything in a particular artwork?”

It seems reasonable to guess that gold armor is cool and drawing armor the same color all the time was boring for many artists. Manuscript art– like all art– can’t be read as an accurate representation of reality, but that doesn’t make it useless as a historical record, it just requires careful interrogation. These manuscript art examples don’t mean that there were regions of Europe where whole armies wore suits of goldish armor. However, if I acknowledge that the reason might be “these artists got bored of drawing steel gray armor all the time,” I only have more questions.

These artists could make armor look any way they want, even completely fantastical or with randomly assigned colors. But, in general, they don’t. Armor is usually colored and shaded to look like metal, sometimes with non-metal colors on some pieces that generally follow a consistent logic. The non-metal colors usually clearly represent armor-related garments or cloth-covered armor.

It seems like these artists generally believed only some colors were appropriate for armor. The exact pigment choices vary between manuscripts and between art shops, so it seems unwise to guess at actual metal processes from this evidence. But if many artists seem to agree that armor should generally come in two or three colors of metal, or that a particular cultural group prefers a different color than mainstream Europeans, that seems important.

If this sounds like it’s leading somewhere, you’d be right! Today’s manuscript examples, I believe, consistently show armor that’s one of three colors: steel, bright gold, or one other shade of gold. Sometimes additional metal colors are used in limited parts of the work.

Before I get into the manuscript art, here’s some more context about the colors of armor.

Sometimes when I’m preparing images to write about, I adjust their colors to make some parts stand out more. Since I’m specifically writing about the significance of the artist’s color choices, I haven’t done any of that this time. All of the photos are mine; all of the manuscript art is from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).

Most of the armor with gilding I’ve seen in museums was gilded about as much these two garnitures for field and foot, both made in Milan around 1575. They’re posed for foot combat at the barrier (fighting with spears, from either side of a hurdle) at the Chicago Art Institute. The armor is steel-colored with elaborate etching, and gold applied to some parts according to the etched designs.

This French gorget (ca 1590-1600), also in Chicago, is made of “steel, gilding, brass, translucent enamel, and leather.” The red and black enamel– thin layers of glass applied to the surface as a liquid– have broken away, and the gilding seems to have worn away unevenly, revealing the steel underneath.

And that’s one answer to why the surviving artifact record doesn’t have as many gold-colored armors as I’m seeing in manuscript art: nothing gold can stay gold.

If this Papal Swiss Guard armor (also in Chicago) looks even more yellow than you expected yellow gold to be, that’s because it is! Bright golden yellow is one of the uniform colors of the Guard, and they’re considered among the earliest uniformed military organizations in Europe.

Sadly, the museum label I took a picture of doesn’t explain how it was made extra-yellow. It’s not just a trick of the lighting, either; here’s a photo of a different Papal Swiss Guard armor with very similar decoration that has lost a lot of its original brightness, but even faded it still has a warm golden glow.

For the next example, I’ve spliced photos together so you can see all of the parts at once

This garniture, dated 1527, is the earliest dated armor from the royal workshops at Greenwich, founded by Henry VIII, and this armor was probably his. It’s now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A garniture is a suit of armor with additional swap-in parts, allowing the owner to have specialized gear for multiple situations without needing a whole suit for each.

The extra parts (on the right edge of my image) reconfigure the armor for mounted use; the breastplate and left gauntlet are for lance combat, and the right gauntlet for mounted sword combat. You can see it assembled with the lance-rest breastplate in the Met catalog entry, as well as see some super closeups of the lance-rest itself, which has a spiral shape and engraving on even its tiniest surfaces.

Every piece of this garniture is not only gilded, but also engraved with patterns designed by Hans Holbein the Younger. There’s an elephant, wearing a castle, traveling through a forest of putti (naked babies that appear in flocks in early modern artwork), some of which are inside the castle and playing large musical instruments, and that’s just what’s under the left elbow. It’s good to be king.

One more photo, and then I promise I’ll move on to manuscript art! This one’s a little different. This one has been processed some, but the colors are unaltered. This is Bill Grandy (on the left) and Scott Wilson (on the right) fighting in the Deed of Arms at Western Martial Arts Workshop 2019. Scott made his own armor and used heat treatment to change the color of the steel.

Heat treatment is probably a big piece of the answer to my questions about whether different metal colors were available without the buying power of a pope or king, and also whether there were more color options than “steel” and “gilded steel.”

Some of you had questions for me about the difference between “manuscript art showing gilded armor” and “gilded manuscript art showing armor.”

Here’s a manuscript illustration (from BnF Fr 2829) of Saint Louis disembarking from a ship with his men-at-arms that uses metallic gold paint for highlights. It’s used on a lot of things that aren’t drawn to look metallic, like the rocks, the roofs in the background, and the garments worn over armor. Interestingly, St. Louis appears twice– once on the ship and once off; he’s the one with the crown and halo– but only one crown is fully colored with the metallic paint; the other uses the same main color and metallic highlights as many of the helmets worn on the ship.

The brilliant pop of the armor fully colored with metallic paint may be exactly the effect kings hoped for when they wore fully-gilded armor. There’s no mistaking what’s going on here: somebody very wealthy and important is leading.

The illustrations in the rest of this article come from three manuscripts.

BnF Fr 2678 is a copy of the chronicle of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, probably made in the early 16th century. 2678 is the first volume and covers the years 1400 to 1422. It was commissioned by the Cardinal of Amboise under Louis XII and the artwork is by a variety of artists who had previously worked for him.
From Hanno Wijsman, “History in Transition. Enguerrand de Monstrelet’s Chronique in Manuscript and Print (c.1450-c.1600)

BnF Fr 2829 is a book of the life and miracles of Louis IX, King of France (Saint Louis), who was the only French king to also be a saint. It was commissioned by Cardinal Charles de Bourbon as a gift for his sister-in-law, probably Jeanne de France and probably around 1478. The text is original, composed for this manuscript, built from earlier sources including Guillaume de Nangis and Guillaume de Saint-Pathus, both of which are compilations of earlier texts about St Louis or testimonies from the posthumous canonization inquest in 1282-83.
From Sarah Hoover, “Gender and dynastic sanctity in late fifteenth-century France: Le livre des faiz monseigneur Saint Loys (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 2829)

BnF Fr 9342 is a mid fifteenth century manuscript of Jehan Wauquelin’s Deeds and Conquests of Alexander the Great created for Jean II of Burgundy and marked with the arms of Philippe the Good. Wauquelin was employed by the Dukes of Burgundy, and for this text, synthesized earlier works to create a new prose version of the Alexander legend. Translator Nigel Bryant observes that in this process, Wauquelin edited with a heavy hand to not only create a new version of the Alexander story, but also tailor the contents for fifteenth century tastes, and use the retelling to establish a legendary origin for the Dukes’ ancestry.
From Nigel Bryant, The Medieval Romance of Alexander: Jehan Wauquelin’s The Deeds and Conquests of Alexander the Great. (Google Books preview)
I also got information about this manuscript from a Flash website created for a past BnF exhibition (in French).

I’m bad at segues today. Let’s return to my thesis: I’m going to show you art from three manuscripts that seem to indicate there are 3 main metal colors for armor, and maybe more.

This illustration is from BnF Fr 2678 and appears beside a picture of the author writing at his desk, so it’s probably a generic battle scene rather than a historical or legendary event. The far side of the battlefield is populated by a vast sea of silvery-gray steel helmets, but the foreground is dominated by soldiers wearing armor that’s a light dull gold. Here and there, on the legs of the frontmost soldier, at the edges of the picture, just beyond the central action, you can see armor elements that are a warm coppery color.

Here’s the same image with circles showing where these warmer-color armors appear. The difference is subtle enough to miss on a quick glance, but different enough to seem deliberate. The warmer armors also consistently appear just outside the main focus of the image, which seems significant but I don’t know what it means. However, they’re on both left and right sides, so they probably aren’t all fighting for the same cause, and this suggests that at least in the world of this picture, these armor metal colors are widespread.

But that’s a generic battle. What about an illustration showing a real (or real-ish) episode?

BnF Fr 9342 is a history of Alexander the Great. The BnF described this scene as an imaginary encounter in one of Alexander’s first feats of arms, which might be why his eyes look so big and worried here. (He’s meeting the King of Armenia.) In addition to riding at the front of the army, Alexander’s armor stands out among the assorted equipment worn by his army– the only soldiers who even come close look dilute by comparison.

The real Alexander, in the fourth century BC in Macedonia, would have looked entirely different and worn different clothes and armor. But without the benefit of meticulous archaeology, medieval artists had no way to depict “accurate” scenes. Instead, they would do their best to represent the social and economic relationships that were important to the scene using the visual language they knew their audience would understand.

And before you ask, yes, his horse is supposed to look like a carnivorous unicorn with murder in its eye. The horse’s name is Bucephalus and he’s Alexander’s most reliable companion. (Wikipedia suggests the more generally accepted appearance is black with a white blaze and one blue eye.) Bucephalus gets some extremely cool horsey armor throughout the manuscript, but that’s a topic for another day.

In the image of Saint Louis arriving ashore above, the soldiers on the boat wore a mix of steel-colored and darker-gold helmets, and Louis appears once without armor and once in armor colored with brilliant gold pigment.

Is the fully-gilded armor meant to be taken literally, rounding out my theorized three colors of armor?

Here’s an illustration from a few pages earlier in BnF Fr 2829 that supports the three colors reading, with helmets and arm defenses in bright gold, dark steel, and dark gold. It doesn’t seem entirely conclusive, since the gilded soldiers only appear at the front of their respective groups while the other two colors appear throughout the crowds, but this makes it clear that this artist is not reserving the bright gilding paint for the King/Saint alone.

It makes sense that kings and emperors would want the most visually rich armor available, so it’s a little surprising that the same solid bright gold color is available (in smaller pieces) to these soldiers.

If this is what fancy gold armor looks like in a manuscript with lots of gilding on the page, how does it look in artwork without metallic pigments?

In BnF Fr 9342, Some of the illustrations show Alexander leading forces on his father’s behalf as a teenager. In this illustration, he appears even younger, much smaller than the men around him. Just outside my cropped border, a kneeling messenger is handing him a note that I think is a plan from his father.

Here, the young regent wears armor very similar to the men closest to him, but improved in ways that emphasize his qualities as a leader. He’s not wearing any clothing over his armor, so it’s immediately obvious that he’s completely covered in rigid protection. His armor has a tangible richness; the whole suit has a single coherent style, suggesting it was ordered and paid for all at once. The blue areas look like velvet, which seems strange to the modern eye, but medieval velvet was more like modern velveteen and was a sturdy, dependable cloth popular for armor elements combining fabric and metal. Finally, the color of the metal itself is subtly different, with a warmth that makes the men standing near him– also in gold armor– look slightly greenish, perhaps because they’re wearing a cheaper alloy.

Several pages later, the same scene is almost perfectly replicated by this vignette. Alexander appears to be considering advice and thinking about orders to give to his soldiers while they besiege the city of Tyre. Alexander has more poise and confidence here– he’s still drawn as a boy king, which makes less sense since he’s 20 now, but reminds viewers that this legend is only beginning. Alexander’s armor hasn’t changed at all, which seems unlikely given the way teenage boys grow, but this artistic choice highlights that Alexander’s maturity is in his body language and behavior and actions and is more than just an image he wears. The soldiers to either side of Alexander have off-gold armor as before, now with velvet that isn’t as lush and saturated, but their armor is otherwise nearly identical to his. The similarity suggests that Alexander has cultivated a closer rapport and a peer relationship.

Farther along when Alexander has grown to his adult height, he is able to reconcile a grievance between knight and a Chaldean man whose brother he killed.

Alexander is still wearing gold and blue armor in the same style, but he’s turned everything up a couple notches, including his extremely stylish hat/crown combination. As before, he seems to have the richest armor around, while wearing a similar style to the men he commands. The other gold suits once again seem diluted, but these are a subtler off-gold, and they’re less closely matched than the off-gold armors in the two previous scenes, hinting at a whole gradient of possibility.

BnF Fr 2829 takes the question of how many shades of non-steel armor are possible in a whole new direction: what about orange and red shades of metal?

This crowd also has mail made of the alternative metals, and some of the armor elements use two metals in deliberate contrast to each other.

I wasn’t able to find a description of this page, so I don’t know what the scene is showing. Based on details like the man in the long bright robe behind the crowd surrounding Louis, this might be Louis meeting soldiers from multiple armies or cultures.

Here’s a smaller, earlier scene from a page depicting Louis departing on his first crusade.

There’s much less armor in this scene, but still, there are definitely four or so colors of metal here: bright gold, warm bronze, brown bronze, and regular steel.

The soldier in the bright gold helmet also has a red feather; another identical feather is just visible a few paces behind him, so it may be a rank insignia. The other feather’s helmet is not visible.

Not all armies in BnF Fr 2829 are so colorful, though. Here’s a scene from later in Louis’s life in which a whole army is kitted out in the warm and brown shades of bronze, with red and blue textile accents. The difference in metals is subtle, but definite.

I think there might be something else interesting going on here, too, but I’m not confident about it. If you see something noteworthy, drop me a message!

I wasn’t able to find a description of this scene, and I don’t recognize any words in the text. Other scenes on the same page include several royal audiences, crossbowmen shooting into (and out of) a besieged fortification, and some tiny scenes of execution seen through the windows at the back of the architectural frame.

BnF Fr 9342 adds another shade to the spectrum of goldish armors in later scenes. These later scenes are different enough they may be executed by a different artist or apprentice within the same workshop, which might explain the shift in metal shades. These are smaller excerpts from a few different pages.

The dark steel color definitely dominates, and the gold of the armor Alexander wears with his rampant lion surcoat seems familiar. The new shade is seen on a few of the helmets behind him, and most noticeable on the spiral-patterned helmets in the other examples in this group. It seems distinctly pale-greenish, and isn’t exactly gold.

There’s also a brownish-goldish shade seen on the soldier in the middle of this huddle. It might be a different metal tone, but it might be a different decoration method or style applied to the off-gold seen previously.

These soldiers’ armor seems especially varied, and since they seem generally similar to several other groups in the same large illustration, they likely are rank-and-file men.

When there are more armors with that decoration style in a scene, it’s clear there are a couple different varieties, but I don’t feel I can comment on whether these varieties represent different metals, different treatments, or both.

Here’s a nice example, with Alexander in his yellow and red surcoat again (and Bucephalus sporting a very nice mail blanket that, not pictured, also has a peacock tail). His armor seems quite ornate, although the shoulder construction is odd. The men riding near him have elements of armor decorated in a similar style, but browner, and worn as supplements to simpler mail and quilted armor. Because their surcoats are waving dramatically in the breeze, this is also a great illustration of the riding posture required by medieval saddles.

The artist of the later part of the manuscript seems to really enjoy this highly detailed, decorated armor.

This next scene is from the foreground of the same illustration as the huddle above. It shows a gathering of many resting soldiers all sporting decorated armor, or plainer plate worn with artistically patterned brigandine. Perhaps these are officers or senior soldiers resting together?

I also like this little vignette because their body language and picnic supplies and the cluster of discarded helmets have a very human casualness to them. Men-at-arms in manuscript art are not always immediately relatable, but these are.

Ornately textured armor also appears in BnF Fr 2678, worn in both steel and goldish colors by the rider in the middle of this illustration. I don’t know whether this is a representation of the same style as the textured armor Alexander wears, or a different style or method, or if both are artistic inventions that don’t relate to real armor craft.

While I’m talking about fabulous, highly decorated armor that I don’t quite understand, I have to show you one more from BnF Fr 2829. In a scene of St. Louis and his crusaders boarding a ship to leave Damietta, this guy is kind of hogging the limelight. (Which might be why everyone else looks grumpy?)

I’m not entirely sure about all of what’s going on here. We’ll start with the plate legs with fine gold lines and maybe fluted surfaces, worn over purple hose (visible at the backs of the knees). Above his cuisses, he appears to have some kind of red velvet braiettes dotted with gold that could be attached chains to prevent cuts. The purple section appears to be made of gold-edged articulation plates, so maybe it’s made of metal?

His lower torso is protected by plain steel, and the upper by green velvet covered armor decorated with lots of gold. The red part of the sleeves look shaped and reinforced, but whether that’s protection or fashion is hard to say. The blue part of the sleeves appears to have reinforcing chains.

After all of that, his helmet with its green plume at least as long as his femur seems downright understated with its shiny gold hinge pin and decorative rivets.

Thanks for coming with me on this marathon!

1 thought on “Gold armor 2: What else glitters?”

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