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Armour can be functional art. It has the capacity to communicate beyond its intended form. Anyone who has taken a stroll in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Armour Collection or the Kretzschmar von Kienbusch Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art can attest to the shear visual power and elegance displayed by historical armour. And, one can argue, that we are only experiencing half of armour’s potential message. As art, the full experience of armour isn’t in the carefully displayed relics placed behind glass. Armour was performance art. It was vibrant and contained images and symbolism relevant to the time it was produced. It was polished, rough, patinated, and even painted to express a variety of messages from the powerful to the mundane. Some of those visual messages are still with us.
This piece on the left is a 19th century iron pageant helmet decorated with ivory scales and motifs. It’s most likely French and it’s tempting to say that this was a purely decorative piece, however, plate armour still had a place on 19th century European battlefields. Likely, the piece was patterned after helmets worn by cuirassiers, heavy cavalrymen who still fought with helmets, breastplates, swords and lances along with flintlock weapons. The form and physical appearance of the cuirassier is still evident in the modern ceremonial Royal Household Cavalry of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
But, while the Royal Household Cavalry bear emblems sacred to Britain’s Royal Family, the helmet in question bears different motifs, namely its conical shape reminiscent of the ancient Phrygian cap. While this might seem cryptic to a 21st century audience, it would have been a strong sign to any 19th century Frenchman (or anyone else in Europe or the fledgling United States): Republicanism. No, I’m not referring to the modern Republican Party, but rather the wider Democratic political movement that had started in the mid 17th century with the English Civil War and developed fully with the 18th century American and French Revolutions. The Phrygian cap or bonnet rouge (red cap) made its debut as a political symbol during a festival in May 1790 upon a statue representing the goddess Libertas. The cap was chosen as an emblem of the plebeian nature of France’s political change and paid homage to the Classical roots of the Democratic and Republican political systems. The Phrygian cap was picked up in American iconography and remains today on the seal of the United States Senate and the United States Army.
But what is a Phrygian cap? Simply put, it was a cloth cap worn by the lower classes in Classical Phrygia (modern central Turkey). It was often used in Greek art to identify non-Greek characters, particularly the Trojans from Homer’s Illiad. The cap was later picked up in the 19th century as a symbol of freedom because it was confused with the Roman pileus, a cap commonly worn by freed slaves.
The Phrygian cap is only one of such examples of repurposed symbolism in art and armour. One of the most potent is the bronze Corinthian Helmet. Originally used by Classical Greek soldiers (hoplites) during the 6th century, B.C., the helmet became an emblem of the citizen-soldier defending Democratic ideals. The emblematic nature of the helmet was adopted by the early Republican Roman legionnaires. The eye and mouth holes and the nasal ridge of the original Corinthian Helmet were turned into a decorative motif on the front of these early legionary helmets called today as Italo-Corinthian helmets.
Almost 2,000 years later, during the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, the Classical image of the Corinthian helm became popular again with the Democratic city-states of Italy.
Florentine and Milanese armourers looked to the design for the creation of an iron and steel version designed to give better protection to the face without adding significant weight. The results were the Y-faced and T-Faced barbute. I have had personal experience creating this type helmet and it is still a widely recognized form. The visual representation of a fully-enclosing helmet with narrow eye and breath slits still resounds in modern culture. The Corinthian helmet can be found today in very direct references including the seal of the United States Military Academy and the most recent Hollywood blockbuster movie, 300, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller depicting Spartan hoplites.
The later Renaissance barbute has been reworked and recycled into a multitude of pop culture forms including (but not limited to) Star Wars, X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. While these uses may not carry as much significance as political emblems, they are still part of our collective narrative experience.
The artists who have worked for Lucas Arts, Marvel Comics, or the Weta Workshop are the inheritors of a long visual lineage. Like any other artist from the past or present, they have taken the visual tools given them by their predecessors and adapted them to create new meaning. Art is such a subjective and biological process that it can be both overwhelming and awe-inspiring. When I look at a piece of parade armour, such as the one we started with, I’m reminded that art and experience comes from unexpected places. Given a period of 2,000 years, a peasants’ cap developed into a symbol of Democratic power. Who knows what future symbolism might develop from our modern humble t-shirt.... Symbols, like all artistic and creative expressions, are what we make of them.