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The Shield of Parade

The Shield of Parade (late 15th century AD) is probably from Flanders or Burgundy and depicts three painted figures on an oblong, wood and leather surface. A knight in shining armour, his helmet at his feet and his weapons cast aside, kneels before a woman. This woman, elaborately dressed in a fine, courtly gown and headdress, looks down at him with a placid gaze. Behind the knight, a malicious figure of skin and bones reaches out behind him, as if to grab the knight’s torso. Just above them, a swirling scroll floats in the air displaying the french phrase “Vous ou la Morte”, which translates to “you or death”. Through a close inspection and analysis of the formal elements of line, space, color, and texture, some questions arise about this scene on the Shield of Parade.

The shield is divided by a vertical opening, which creates a line down the middle of the scene. The lady stands off by herself in one half of the shield, allowing the scroll, knight, and figure of Death to be grouped together in the other half. The verticality of this dividing line is mirrored in the woman’s pose, as she stands straight as the tallest figure in this scene. Her hand motions forward and leads the viewer’s eye to meet his outstretched hand. On the knight’s half of the scene, a series of diagonal lines– in his arms, sword, lance, and in Death’s arms and legs– signal action and movement. The scroll’s diagonal and curvy lines also convey energy on this side of the shield.

The space in this scene makes the composition asymmetrical. The side where the lady stands shows much more negative space, as it is not filled with any objects above or below her, while the knight’s side has more positive space. Additionally, there is some interest in showing a three dimensional space by a recession into depth. The rocky ground has some depth, and the helmet on the ground appears larger, as if it were closer to the viewer.

Although the figures are somewhat flat, they are not completely unrealistic. They are modeled in light and dark colors which shows a technique reminiscent of classical art. There is not a great amount of variety in color in this scene. A bronze-gold color dominates most of the shield as it envelopes the background (both the sky and the earth), and is seen in the lady’s dress and in the knight’s weapons. However, there is gray in his armour, red and green hues in her richly embroidered dress, and gray-brown in Death’s skin. The colors in the lady’s depiction are much lighter. For instance, her skin is quite fair in comparison to his, and her veil and the trimming on her dress is white.

There is a great interest in implied texture in this scene. The modeling of shades on the knight’s armour stimulates the impression of smooth, polished metal. The scroll folds in an angular way, as if it were truly made of rough paper or parchment. Furthermore, the lady’s dress is intricately detailed with a floral pattern, and the folds in her dress give the impression of a heavy fabric. The implied texture in these parts of the shield add to the realistic quality of the overall image.

With a comprehensive reading of this artifact, and an analysis of the formal elements of line, space, color, and implied texture, some questions result. Such questions are:

For what purpose was this shield created and how did original viewers understand the object?

How was courtly love displayed in medieval images? What were the typical scenes on shields and how do they compare to this shield? What did this shield have to do with a “parade”? What were possible cultural and stylistic influences that inspired this image?

The Shield of Parade has been on display at the British Museum since 1863.

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