Origins of the “St. Wenceslas Helmet”

In December 2016, an extraordinary sword of Petersen’s type S, known for its rich decoration, was found in Lázně Toušeň in Central Bohemia. Although swords of the type were found in locations ranging from Ireland to Russia, this specific piece is the very first example from the Czech Republic. Thanks to my cooperation with Jiří Košta and Jiří Hošek on mapping the analogies, I had the opportunity to examine the weapon by myself. This and other events of the past two years affected me greatly and made me rethink my approach to many topics. Foremost I felt the need to once again review the so-called St. Wenceslas helmet, the nose-guard and browband in particular.

The helmet known as “St. Wenceslas helmet” is very well known and curious item, which has been kept in Bohemia from the Early Middle Ages, with many publications covering the topic (most notably by Hejdová 1964Merhautová 1992Schránil 1934). Along with a chainmail, a mail cloak and other items, it is a part of the crown jewels, playing its symbolic role in the past millennium. The recent research confirmed that the oldest of these artefacts originated in the 10th century (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014). Nowadays, the helmet consists of a dome, a nose-guard and browband, showing many, often low-quality repairs, which suggest the helmet undergone a complicated development. It is obvious that in its current form, the helmet is a compilation was meant for occasional exhibits and was never meant to be used on the actual head. Let’s thoroughly summarise what facts we have about the helmet, and what is just an assumption.

svatovaclavkaCondition of the St. Wenceslas helmet in 1934. Click for higher resolution.
Source: Schránil 1934: Tab. XIII and XIV.

On the helmet’s base, the measurements of the inner oval are 24,4 cm × 20,9 cm, with a circumference of 70 cm. The single-piece conical dome might have been crafted in Czech lands, and due to being dated in 10th century, it could have been around during St. Wenceslas’s reign (†935) (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014: 179). It is thus possibly one of the oldest preserved single-piece conical helmets, of which the closest parallels can be found in the Czech Republic and Poland (Bernart 2010). The helmet dome has height of 16 cm, with the helmet weighing a total of 1 kilogram. A presumption that the helmet dome was of younger date was not confirmed. The material of the helmet is substantially inhomogenous – on the forehead, the thickness is between 1,6 and 1,9 mm, while being 0,6 to 1,9 mm on the sides (personal discussion with Miloš Bernart). In the place where the nose-guard is attached today, there was originally an integral nose-guard that was later cut off and the area surrounding it was adjusted by hammering to fit the now-present part. Hejdová suggested that the original helmet had ear and neck protection prior to the adjustment, leaving holes around the edge (Hejdová 196619671968), but a recent analysis considers these to be a remnant after helmet padding (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014). These two aspects should not be viewed as separated – as is suggested in case of Lednica helmet, the helmet padding could be the base of the ear and neck protection that was attached to it (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2018: 217-219). The dome bears signs of several repairs, which had though avoided a rather specific hole on the helmet rear most likely either caused by a weapon blow or was meant to suggest so. Further details on measurements and repairs are summarised by Hejdová and Schránil (Hejdová 1964; Schránil 1934).

jednokusSelection of single-piece helmets from the Czech Republic and Poland.
Source: Bernart 2010.

Some time following the death of St. Wenceslas, but possibly still in 10th century, the helmet received various modifications linked to its exaltation to a sacred relic. The adjustments were possibly initiated either by Duke Boleslav II. (†999), who supported the cult of St. Wenceslas, or his wife, the duchess Emma (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014: 181). The existence of the modified helmet was possibly reflected by author of the so-called “Legend of Kristián”, dated 992-994 AD. The legend speaks of Duke Wenceslas meeting Duke Radslav of Kouřim, who laid down his weapon after seeing a mark of the Holy Cross shining on Wenceslas’s forehead. It is possible that Kristián, being a potential brother of Boleslav II. and therefore well aware of the Přemyslid dynasty affairs at the end of 10th century, meant the shining cross as a reference to the decorated nose-guard, a newly installed decoration on the helmet. According to Merhautová, the helmet could had been unveiled at the occasion of founding the Archdiocese of Prague in 973 AD (Merhautová 2000: 91).

One of lesser modifications done during the 10th century affected the lower edge of helmet dome, where an aventail holder made of folded silver strip was riveted. Today, only fragments of the strip holder on inner and outer edge remain. This type of holder represents a very laborious and highly effective protection; there are grooves cut or sheared into the fold of the strip, to which rings holding the aventail are inserted, held in place by a metal wire. This sophisticated method is known from at least ten other Early Middle Ages helmets and helmet fragments, where the strip is made from iron, brass or gilded bronze (Vlasatý 2015). The St. Wenceslas treasure guarded in Prague also contains a chainmail. It is accompanied by a square-shaped mail cloak, which upper part (a sort of “standing collar” with dimensions 50 × 7,5 cm) is fringed with three lines of almost pure gold rings (Schránil 1934). The uppermost line of rings is again made of iron. A detailed analysis confirmed that the collar is made of identical rings as the chainmail but differs from the rest of the mail cloak. The researchers (Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014: 180181) suggest the collar was originally a standing collar of the chainmail, only later to be removed and re-used as an aventail attached to the helmet with iron rings. The aventail was possibly removed from the helmet during reign of Charles IV and became a basis for the mail cloak, later to be expanded to the current shape. Because of the original length of 7,5 cm and use of a silver holder, it seems this part of the helmet was purely decorative.

vaclav-limecDetail of the collar with golden fringe. Source: Bernart 2010: pic. 37.

Another modification, possibly done simultaneously with the previously mentioned improvements, was an installation of the nose-guard and the browband. We shall take a deeper look at this particular change as the nose-guard has been greatly discussed by many Czech researchers, and as I will attempt to show, many of the opinions were completely misleading and based on ignorance of wider context. The nose-guard is cross-shaped with a total height of 14,7 cm, width of 18,5 cm and is thick up to 5 mm. On three of its ends, it is attached to the dome by large iron rivets. The brow part is lobated on the upper edge and represents eye-brows. The nasal itself copies the shape of a nose and is 6,3 cm long and 3,3 cm wide. From the side view, the nasal seems to be slightly bent, which Miloš Bernart claims to be caused by falling on its lower end. There is a small thorn of unknown function coming out of the middle of the lower end of the nose-guard. Due to typological similarity with a helmets from Olomouc and Lednica, we could argue the thorn was expanded to a small hook used for attaching face-protecting aventail (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2018: 217-219). Nearest analogy of the cross-shaped nose-guard is known from Bosnian Trnčina, which is dated to 10th-11th century (D’Amato 2015: 67, Pl. 5) and is a second specimen of single-piece helmet with additional nose-guard. Lower part of St. Wenceslas helmet’s dome is edged with a decorative brow band covering the silver aventail holder, ending beneath the nose-guard. It was attached to the helmet by rivets, together with two larger rivets on the nose-guard; the rivets fastening the band were secured by copper pads on the inner side of the helmet. Circa three-quarters of this brow band survived to present day, which got probably damaged in the past to a point where it had to be repaired by additional attachments. Decorative band on a helmet is an uncommon feature, known mostly from Eastern Europe (Holmquist Olausson – Petrovski 2007: 234-236). The nearest analogy of the band is possibly a decoration of helmet from Nemia, Ukraine, dated to 11th century (Kirpičnikov 1971: Tabl. IX).

Schematic reconstruction of the helmet circa 1000 AD.
Source: Taken from Czech Radio website.

The silver surface of both the nose-guard and browband is decorated by overlay. This method is based on cutting into the base material in various directions, to which a more expensive metal is then hammered (Fuglesang 1980: 125–126; Moilanen 2015: 276–277). In the case of the nose-guard, the base metal is cut in three directions; this fact is apparent on X-ray photos, on some spots even with naked eye. The browband is most likely decorated the same way. Silver wire or plate was used for overlay, and analysis also shows traces of copper, gold, lead and corroded zinc, though not used for decoration (personal discussion with Miloš Bernart). According to Vegard Vike, the material used for decoration was silver wire mechanically hammered to the cuts, while a copper-alloy wire might had been used for outlines which are now missing. Miloš Bernart, Petr Floriánek and Jeff Pringle agree that the outlines were originally filled with niello, which fell out over time. The nearest analogical helmets with masks decorated by overlay are from Lokrume, Gotland, and Kiev, Ukraine (Vlasatý 2016Vlasatý 2018). Furthermore, a fragment from Lokrume is decorated by identical motifs as the St. Wenceslas helmet’s browband. Overlay decoration is also commonly used on weapons and riding equipment from 950 AD to beginning of 12th century in England and Scandinavia, from where this method could had expanded to neighbour countries together with motifs achieved by this method. Like in the case of the sword find from Lázně Toušeň, it is extremely difficult to determine the point of origin, because spread of fashion also included manufacturing processes, not only the final product. Overlay method thus only indicates that the item most likely originated in Northern or Eastern Europe.

Wenceslas_noseguard-ChristDetail of the St. Wenceslas helmet’s nose-guard. Source: Vegard Vike.

I believe that motifs achieved by this method on the nose-guard can help us narrow down the place of manufacturing. To displeasure of all Czech researchers who would love to deem the character depicted on the nose-guard as Norse god Oðinn (eg. Merhautová 1992Merhautová 2000Sommer 2001: 32), it is necessary to reject this theory once and for all. In fact, it is an early depiction of crucified Jesus Christ (as was suggested by Benda, Hejdová and Schránil), that has many parallels in European area up to 12th century (Fuglesang 1981Staecker 1999). Its function on the nose-guard is clear – to represent a Christian owner, depicts a formula of Christ’s redemption and his second coming, to induce fear and awe in the enemy. If Merhautová (2000: 91) writes that „cruficied Christ neither was, nor as a winner over death could not be depicted hairless, with shouting mouth and untreated moustache (…)“, it is only a proof of ignoring archaeological material, which we need to present on the example of finds of crosses, wood carvings and militaria.

jellingEarly Scandinavian depictions of Christ. Click for higher resolution.
A stone from Jelling, cast figure from Haithabu, wooden figure from Jelling mound, pendant from Birka grave Bj 660.

krizkyDepiction of Christ from Northern and Western Europe. 9th-12th century. Click for higher resolution.
Source: Staecker 1999: Abb. 59, 61, 68, 79; Kat. Nr. 14, 43, 46, 49, 51a, 53a, 54, 60, 65, 74, 81, 86, 100, 116a.

jezis_meceFigures on sword pommels interpreted as Jesus, 11th century.
Swords from Pada, Estonia and Ålu, Norway. Source: Ebert 1914: 121 and catalogue.

Let us take a closer look at separate parts of the nose-guard’s decoration. Most attention was paid to head of the figure which – although not being entirely preserved – has two staring eyes, open mouth with bared teeth, untreated moustache forked in many directions and a crown of unspecifiable shape. Such features were in the past perceived as a reason why this character can not be considered crucified Jesus Christ. All of them can be though found on early Christian art of Western, Central, Northern and Eastern Europe in 9th-12th century. The closest similarity can be seen on the face of Crucified on a cross found in Stora Uppakrå, Sweden (11th century; Staecker 1999: Kat. Nr. 51). Also from 11th century, a sword found in Ålu, Norway (C36640) has pommel depicting Christ with bared teeth, moustache, stare and tri-tipped crown on head (discussion with Vegard Vike). If we attempted to specify shape of the crown, we can then point out to analogies, in which crosses, rhombuses with cross motif, Hand of God, halos or hats are depicted above head of the Crucified, with the rhombus and Hand of God seem to be the closest. Depicted features belong to angry God, which one should be afraid of – this is common for era up to 1000 AD, when Christian Europe was under constant attacks. In newly Christianised lands, Jesus Christ was just one god of the local pantheon at first (Bednaříková 2009: 94), and had to achieve his preference by force, not by gestures of friendship and humility.

hlavaHeads of the Crucified in European art, 9th-12th century.
Click for higher resolution. Source: Staecker 1999.

Also, arms wound with two pair of bracelets similar with rings were in the past considered a reason why a figure cannot be considered crucified Jesus Christ. But the period iconography is in direct contradiction – on the contrary, it seems that early depictions of Jesus Christ often show Jesus bound, not only nailed to cross (Fuglesang 1981). The rings therefore represent loops binding arms, or pleated sleeve of tunic that the figure is wearing. Position of thumbs pointing upwards is then a feature undoubtedly pointing to Jesus on cross. An X-ray screening and detailed photos also seem to show a stigma or nails. Arms appear to be broken, to which we also find analogies on a crucifix from Hungarian Peceszentmárton (12th century; Jakab 2006).

rukaHands of the Cruficied in European and Turkish art, 9th-12th century.
Click for higher resolution. Source: Staecker 1999 and the Jelling stone.

Body of the figure seems to be dressed in a tunic or coat, which is tied in the waistline area with a massive belt or rope. The coat is also decorated with opposite lines creating a herringbone motif. It is also possible to find many parallels to these details in period iconography, with a bound belt being widely used in Scandinavian art. As for the legs, their decoration is mostly fallen out, which makes any reconstruction near to impossible; it is though obvious that the figure stands with legs apart. That might seem as an uncommon feature, but still we know some analogies.

hrud-pasBody of the Crucified in European art, 9th-12th century.
Click for higher resolution. Source: Staecker 1999 and Jelling finds.

Legs of the Crucified in European art, 9th-12th century.
Click for higher resolution. Source: Staecker 1999.

Above the crown of the crucified character, there is a non-completely preserved plaited ornament, filling the area where the nose-guard narrows. This motif closely resembles a filling plait found on hilts of Petersen type L, R, S and T swords (Petersen 1919) and on spear sockets (eg. Fuglesang 1980). The plaits on the swords originating in 2nd half of 10th century are the nearest analogy, while the spear decorations evolving into more complicated forms categorised as Ringerike style can be dated between the end of 10th century and third quarter of 11th century (Fuglesang 1980: 18; Wilson – Klindt-Jensen 1966: 146).

strelka Plaited ornament on Scandinavian and Estonian weapons, 10th-11th century.
Source: Jets 2012: Fig. 1 and catalogue.

Above the arms and next to them are simple tri-tipped ornaments and intertwined loops. Their position on the nose-guard is symmetrical. It seems that this decoration was meant to fill in empty space that would otherwise remain there. As an analogy to tri-tipped decoration, one can mention triquetras on Jelling stone, located above arms and next to face of the Crucified. But there are more parallels: tri-tipped ornaments can also be found above arms of figure depicted on pommel of Pada sword and on Ålu sword pommel where there are two crosses next to a face of the character. Loops depicted between hands and large rivets have an analogy in a loop on sword guard from Telšiai, Latvia (Tomsons 2008: 94, 5. att), in wavy lines located beneath arms of the Cruficied on cross from Gullunge, Sweden (turn of 12th century) and Finnish Halikko (12th century). In the case of Halikko cross, the wavy lines possibly represent clouds or wind currents, as the area above the head is also filled with heavenly bodies (Moon and Sun). The whole composition might therefore depict Jesus as the lord of heavens. Some crosses in Byzantium tradition depict winged angels next to hands of the Crucified. In other cases, the area below arms is filled with text or heads of figures, and so one cannot rule out that the ornament might have a similar apotropaic meaning.

vlnovka A simple ornament: St. Wenceslas helmet, Gullunge, Halikko.
Source: Staecker 1999: Kat. Nr. 112, Abb. 96.

We can evaluate the decoration on helmet’s browband as a typical plaited ornament of Borre style, which has rich analogies in lands under Scandinavian influence – circa from Great Britain to Russia. In Scandinavia, the Borre style is dated between 1st half of 9th century and 2nd half of 10th century. In Poland, the Borre style found a wide use and became favoured and was still used during 11th century (Jaworski et al. 2013: 302). Ornaments of this kind can also be found on Lokrume helmet fragment, on several Petersen type R and type S swords, and we could possibly find it on other militaria as well. Although of different shape, intertwined loops are also present on decorative band on helmet from Nemia, Ukraine.

Emblems_1-5 Plaited ornaments used on Petersen type R and type S swords from Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.
Created by Tomáš Cajthaml.

obrouckaDecorative bands on St. Wenceslas helmet and on helmet from Nemia, Ukraine.
Source: Schránil 1934: Tab. XIII; Kirpičnikov 1971: Tab. IX.

If we were to suggest a place of manufacture of these decorated components, Scandinavia, or rather the island of Gotland definitely is the most probable (Schránil 1934Benda 1972Merhautová 2000Bravermannová 2012Bernart – Bravermanová – Ledvina 2014), although there are more possibilities. Potential candidates can also be Poland, Baltic lands, Finland, Russia or Ukraine, but definitely not Rhineland, as some suggested (Hejdová 1964196619671968). The components could have gotten to Central Europe via the Polish route, which was widely open up to 70s of 10th century thanks to a marriage of Mieszko I of Poland and Czech princess Doubrava, sister of Boleslav II. But we cannot either rule out even a later import, because as proven by Ethelred’s denarii, which were copied in Bohemia and transported back to Baltic sea, the route was also open in 80s and 90s of 10th century as well (Lutovský – Petráň 2004: 95; Petráň 2006: 168).

The St. Wenceslas helmet is a compilation of several, originally unrelated components, which was most likely put together of the initiative of Boleslav II. in order to support the growing cult of St. Wenceslas and therefore his own position. The helmet was modified and repeatedly repaired throughout the ages. Historical and cultural value of this item is incalculable. Currently, the helmet is on exhibition at Prague castle, where it receives a major attention both local and foreign visitors.

St. Wenceslas helmet with shining nose-guard.
Source: Jan Gloc, Prague castle administration.


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