The Cultural and Social Weight of Holding a Helmet in Early Modern Portraiture

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Since antiquity, the helmets of illustrious military leaders are almost always omitted in art. From sculptural busts to grand representations of battle, the clear view of a likeness is often prioritized above the realities of protective head gear. An armor-bearer holding a helmet, gauntlets, or lance for someone before a battle or a procession is mentioned casually enough in literature to indicate that the practice was quite common. These helpful figures began to appear regularly in visual representations at the beginning of the sixteenth century, persisting well into the eighteenth century, though by this time, the assortment of young pages, dwarves, and squires are replaced almost entirely by exotically attired black youths. By examining how this figure evolved over time, an understanding emerges of the different layers of privilege associated with martial identity as they changed over the course of three centuries. Tom’s talk traces the motif from its origins rooted in chivalric and Classical associations to demonstrations of colonial imperialism.

This research is part of a larger project as an article that Tom is submitting to a journal and is one case study among many in her work on the topic of military identity and portraiture.