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The Skanderbeg Helmet
and the Skanderbeg Sword

The Skanderbeg helmet and the Skanderbeg sword are among the most prominent objects in the Imperial Armoury of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Helmet and sword have been associated with Gjergj Kastrioti (commonly known as Skanderbeg; 1405–1468) since the late sixteenth century. In the course of the twentieth century, a number of myths have grown around these objects. This page presents a short and accessible introduction to these artefacts.

The Skanderbeg Helmet and the Skanderbeg Sword

The Skanderbeg Helmet

The helmet is a fragment of an Italian sallet from the late fifteenth century; the inscription (in late-Gothic minuscles and divided by six flower rosettes) on the circumferential copper band reads ‘Inperatorebt’. 

‘Inperator’ (or ‘Imperator’) is an ancient honorary title that derives from the Latin imperare (to rule, command). In the Middle Ages, it was primarily used for emperors and kings.

A head of a goat made of gilt copper functions as the helmet’s crest. The goat’s eyes were presumably once inlaid with coloured glass or stones.

The Skanderbeg helmet, 2nd half of the 15th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Imperial Armoury, inv. A 127 © KHM-Museumsverband

The Skanderbeg Sword

The sword is probably the work of a fifteenth-century bladesmith active in the Middle East or the Balkans. The tip of the wide, double-edged blade is rounded. Note, just below the guard on the obverse, decorative foliage with a medallion damascened in gold. The medallion features linear ornamentation that imitates an Arab inscription.  

The handle was most likely replaced in the sixteenth century. The scabbard is made of fish skin embellished with stamped linear decoration and the inscription, in red paint, ‘Scänderwech’.

The Skanderbeg sword, 15th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Imperial Armoury, inv. A 550 © KHM-Museumsverband

Skanderbeg’s Fame during the Renaissance

In the mid-fifteenth century, Skanderbeg led a successful Christian rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the Albanian highlands around Krujë. His victories over the sultan’s superior forces made him famous throughout Europe, and even after his death his deeds continued to be celebrated in biographies and portraits.

His fame led to his inclusion in the so-called Armoury of Heroes at Ambras Castle near Innsbruck.

Here Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-95), a brother of Emperor Maximilian II (1527-76), had assembled a great number of armours and arms that had belonged to celebrated rulers and generals, both his contemporaries and from earlier generations, as well as objects then attributed to these famous men.

The Skanderbeg Objects at Ambras Castle

Helmet and sword are first mentioned in 1593, when they are listed in an inventory of the collection assembled by Ferdinand II at Ambras Castle: ‘George (Gjergj) Skanderbeg, helmet and two swords’. The second sword mentioned here has not survived.

A few years later, in 1596, the objects are described in more detail in the inventory compiled after the archduke’s death: ‘George (Gjergj) Skanderbeg, a plain, polished helmet with gilt band, surmounted with the head of a goat with horns, and two swords: one in a leather scabbard, which is believed to be authentic due to its weight and the still visible traces of blood; the other in a velvet scabbard, which is also venerated as having belonged to Skanderbeg’.

We do not know which of the two swords described in the inventory is the one that has survived. The sword inventoried as A 550 does not show any traces of blood (as described in the historical entry in the inventory).

The portrait of Skanderbeg in the illustrated catalogue of the collection of armour at Ambras (known as the Armamentarium Heroicum, published in 1601) is the earliest known depiction of the helmet and the extant sword. The portrait shows Skanderbeg clutching the sword, with the helmet placed at his feet.

Portrait of Gjergj Kastrioti known as Skanderbeg, in: Jakob Schrenck von Notzing, Armamentarium Heroricum, Innsbruck 1601, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Library, inv. 91555_16 © KHM-Museumsverband

A second portrait of Skanderbeg (without either helmet or sword) is included in the Portrait Gallery assembled by Ferdinand II, which comprises several hundred miniature likenesses of celebrated men and women of the Renaissance.

Portrait of Gjergj Kastrioti known as Skanderbeg, from the Portrait Gallery assembled by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, late 16th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Picture Gallery, inv. 5416 © KHM-Museumsverband

1806 – from Ambras to Vienna

Helmet and sword remained at Ambras Castle from the late sixteenth century until 1806, when they, together with the remainder of the collection, were removed to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars.

In Vienna they were first displayed at Lower Belvedere Palace in 1814. In 1889, they, as part of the imperial art collection, were transferred to the newly erected Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The Objects from Ambras before They Came to Ambras

There have been countless suggestions as to where Archduke Ferdinand might have acquired the objects around 1580/90. However, there are no records about them having belonged to, for example, the Duke of Urbino or the Sforzas. Other suggestions regarding the earlier whereabout of helmet and sword – such as, for instance, that they were sold by Skanderbeg’s widow – are also not supported by archival evidence.

The Second Skanderbeg sword

The collection in Vienna also houses a second sword once associated with Skanderbeg – a war knife or messer (a single-edged sword with a curved blade and a knife-like hilt; inv. A 145) now displayed in Gallery II of the Imperial Armoury. It dates from around 1490 and is the work of a bladesmith active in southern Germany or Austria; the blade is engraved with foliage and a cross.

The messer was long in the Imperial Arsenal in Vienna, where it was displayed in the nineteenth century as having belonged to Skanderbeg. Like the helmet and sword, it was removed to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the late nineteenth century.

War knife, southern German-Austrian, c. 1490, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Imperial Armoury, inv. A 145 © KHM-Museumsverband

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