Height: 83.000 cm
Gift of Revd J. Wilson
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Shield of Parade
Medieval, late 15th century
From Flanders or Burgundy
'You or Death' - an image of courtly love
The shield depicts a lady in courtly dress and a knight kneeling in front of her. The knight wears a suit of plate armour with the helmet, gauntlets and a pole-axe lying at his feet. Death emerges from behind, his hands outstretched and about to sieze him. The scroll above the knight's head could either represent the knight's speech, or be a declaration the motto of the scene: 'vous ou la mort' ('you or death') - the knight would rather die than not to win the lady's love.
A knight declaring his love to or taking leave from a lady is a well-known theme in medieval and Renaissance art of courtly circles. The presence here of Death, as a reminder of the transitoriness of man and earthly pleasures, is particularly appropriate in the case of a knight about to face the dangers of battle or a tournament.
The shield is unique both in form and decoration. Although constructed like a battle shield - a wooden core, covered with leather - it would not afford sufficient protection for use on a late fifteenth-century battlefield. The high quality of the painting is further proof that it was used for display purposes only, probably during parades and other court festivities. The style and quality of the painting are very close to Flemish panel painting of the period and it has been suggested that it may have been the prize of a tournament.
T.D. Kendrick, 'A Flemish painted shield', The British Museum Quarterly-9, 13: 2 (1939), pp. 33-34
J. Cherry, Medieval decorative art (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)