Art and the sword

From the Order of St George to the Gonzaga Relief



Art and the sword

Art and the sword

Around 1500, like much of Europe, Carinthia found itself in a state of change and upheaval: the Middle Ages, the time of chivalry, was coming to an end, and with the Renaissance the arts and sciences began to flourish. At the same time these decades were also marked by political uncertainty and the threat of Ottoman incursions. Johann Siebenhirter was then Grand Master of the chivalric Order of St George, founded in 1469 and based at Millstatt. Carinthian artists such as the well-known painter Thomas von Villach, who ran his own studio, worked for the wealthy elite, but works of art of international standing such as the wedding chests of Paola Gonzaga of Mantua were also making their way into the eastern Alpine region.

Ceremonial sword of the Grand Master

Johann Siebenhirter came from old Viennese stock and was a close confidant of Emperor Frederick III. At the beginning of 1469 he assumed the office of Grand Master of the chivalric Order of St George, tasked with defending Carinthia against Ottoman incursions. Dating to 1499, the ceremonial sword of the Grand Master is among the most valuable and important ceremonial weapons from the late Gothic era in the Central European Alpine region. Made of steel, iron and sheet silver, the sword bears the arms of the Grand Master and an invocation to the Virgin Mary: AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA (Hail Mary, full of grace). 

Armoured knights

Originally a knight’s complete set of armour was referred to as a harness. The harness of the chivalric Order of St George from Millstatt bears a red cross at the centre. On the right is the rest for the lance.

Protective shield

A targe is a form of shield that developed in Central Europe from the middle of the fourteenth century. There are two forms: smaller equestrian targes that were concave and intended to ward off blows from the enemy’s lances, and larger rectangular ones for foot-soldiers. The ‘winged’ targe displayed here is an unusual type from the second half of the fifteenth century, having a wing-like extension towards the top in order to provide protection for the left arm and neck of a foot soldier against sabre attacks from Ottoman knights.


The two-hander is a double-edged sword for use in battle. Originating in Switzerland, in the late medieval and early modern period they were used to arm the second row of foot soldiers. Around 1500, two-handers reached a length of up to two metres or more and could weigh more than four kilograms. They were the preferred weapons of the lansquenets fighting under Maximilian I. Soldiers trained in using the two-hander mostly received double pay.

Founding ceremony in Rome

Commissioned for the abbey church at Millstatt around 1490, this painting depicts the founding ceremony of the chivalric Order of St George in the Lateran at Rome. It shows the oath of allegiance, knighting and investiture with the regalia of the order, with the founder of the order, Frederick III standing, Pope Paul II seated and the Grand Master of the order, Johann Siebenhirter, kneeling.

Triumph and virtue

In 1478, when the young princess Paola Gonzaga of Mantua married the considerably older Count Leonhard of Gorizia, she brought a rich dowry into what would prove to be an unhappy marriage. The dowry included four lavishly decorated wedding chests. From these come two painted reliefs showing the triumphal procession of the Roman emperor Trajan and his just judgement, a motif that was associated with the notion of Christian virtue in an ideal ruler during the Middle Ages. The stylistic models for the dense figural frieze were the decorations on antique sarcophagi and triumphal arches. The unknown creator of this pictorial world may have based them on drawings by the famous Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, who worked for the court at Mantua.  

Sacred memorial

Created around 1520, this predella or lower section of a winged altarpiece shows the Virgin Mother and Man of Sorrows with the coat of arms of the second Grand Master of the chivalric Order of St George, Johann Geumann. Occupying this office until his death in 1533, he built the Geumann Chapel in the abbey church of Millstatt in which his tombstone has been preserved.

Master at Villach

It can be assumed with certainty that among the artists commissioned by the chivalric Order of St George was the renowned artist Thomas of Villach (c. 1440–1530), who ran his own studio. Displayed here is an impressive example of his artistry, the so-called Lamentation Panel from the abbey, which he painted around 1493 at the behest of the art-loving abbot Sigmund Jöbstl von Jöbstlberg for the Benedictine abbey of St Paul in the Lavant Valley.

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