This armour was almost certainly owned by a member of the Matsch family of Castle Churburg in the Italian Tyrol. Churburg now belongs to the Trapp family, successors of the Matsches in an unbroken sequence since the Middle Ages, and still houses the armours of the two families. The harness shown here now resides in Glasgow and is unique in Britian. Having left Churburg as recently as the 1930s, its pedigree is precisely known.
Contemporary treatises on manners, such Baldessare Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, covered many topics, including appearance and good taste. According to Castiglione, a gentleman’s “first duty” was to excel at handling every kind of weapon and, presumably, to be properly attired while doing so. In the 16th century, male fashion was often more ostentatious than female dress, and armor was indelibly linked to current styles. Even armor made for fighting can be dated according to its decoration and shape just as precisely as civilian clothing. Most notably, from about the 1530s onward, the style of breastplates was influenced by the close-fitting jacket known as a doublet. Both the doublet and the breastplate were designed to emphasize a man’s shoulders. In the second half of the 16th century, armor also increasingly showed off men’s legs, mirroring trends in the fashion of the day.
This panel recounts the adventures of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, who rescued the True Cross and returned it to Jerusalem after its capture by Chosroës, king of Persia. These scenes were probably part of an extended narrative on an altarpiece dedicated to the Holy Cross, a relic that was much venerated in the Middle Ages.
In this scene, the emperor brings the True Cross back to Jerusalem in triumph. However, an angel bars his way, pointing out the vanity of his procession in comparison to Christ’s humble entry into the city. Only when the emperor dismounted and approached in humility was he allowed to enter, a scene that was no doubt once part of the sequence. Here the emperor is identifiable by the double-headed eagle, which was an emblem of both the Holy Roman emperor of the day and past emperors.