What Shields and Panel Paintings Have in Common
Written by

What Shields and Panel Paintings Have in Common

This talk was first given for Summer School on 28 July 2022. If you didn’t mean to come here, you can go ←back to talks

Shields from the Desert

Overview of a 20th century watercolour painting of one of the Roman shields from Dura-Europos (destroyed ca. 260 CE)

In the 1920s and 1930s, French and American archaeologists used the French mandate in Syria to excavate the city of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates. Dura was conquered by the troops of the Sasanid king Shapur I around 260 CE, and because it was never occupied again all kinds of things were left there rather than being salvaged or demolished. In the ruins of one of the towers in the wall they found a group of three shields. These shields did not have their iron or brass fittings, so they were probably being made or repaired when the tower collapsed during the siege.

These shields are covered with elaborate paintings. The narrative sections are sketchy but have shading and highlighting and use a wide range of colours. Two of the best preserved show Acheans fighting Trojans and Greeks battling Amazons. The artistic culture in Roman Dura drew on Greek, Mesopotamian, and Persian influenced. There is no reason to think that these shields were special, they just happened to be buried in a place where they were protected from wet and insects.

Lets suppose you want a painting which you can move around. You want a smooth surface which won’t change size or shape as the weather changes so the paint does not crack. Lets also suppose that ceramics are not an option, either because they are too fragile, or because you want colours which you can’t fire in a kiln. In our culture, we would usually paint in on a piece of fabric stretched over a wooden frame. But a really simple option is to create a structure of thin planks and paint on that. A wooden panel is not as light as a canvas, but its still light enough to transport easily, and it is not as vulnerable to rips or cuts. Its also very simple to make, whereas picture frames can be fiddly, and can be made in any shape, whereas canvases lend themselves to rectangles.

(For more images of the shield with Trojan War paintings from Dura Europos on the Euphrates see https://www.getty.edu/publications/mummyportraits/part-two/16/#deepzoom-1603899484248950424)

The Pitsa Panels, ca. 540-530 BCE

One of the Pitsa tablets from mainland Greece. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Greekreligion-animalsacrifice-corinth-6C-BCE.jpg

Paintings on wooden panels are hard to study because wood decays and plaster cracks. Outside of Egypt, some of the earliest panel paintings come from a cave near the village of Pitsa in Greece. In the ancient world this cave was sacred, and people went there to leave offerings. Parts of four painted wooden panels were discovered in 1934. They are about 5 mm thick, 20-30 cm long, and 15 cm tall. One recent study suggests that the wood was pine, which was not popular for later panel paintings but is mentioned by the natural philosopher Theophrastus (Brecoulaki et al., p. 18). A layer of gypsum was applied directly to the wood to give a smooth white background. On at least two of the panels, the composition was roughly sketched by scratching outlines into the gypsum. Then the figures were outlined in black or red and the figures were filled in. A few details such as wreaths, jewelry, and folds in cloth were painted on top of the base layer.

(If you want to learn about the technical details of these paintings, a great free article is https://www.academia.edu/42817853/Colour_and_Painting_Technique_on_the_Archaic_Panels_from_Pitsa_Corinthia)

Cowhide Shields from Egypt

Painted wooden figurines from the tomb of Mesehti in Upper Egypt (around 2000 BCE). Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Warriors_figures_ushabtis.jpg

Sculptures and paintings from Bronze Age Egypt show that shields often consisted of a wooden panel covered with cowhide with the hair on. Several of these shields survive from Egypt. Rawhide is very strong and tough, so a layer or two of rawhide kept the shield from splitting as it was hit with spears and arrows. The Egyptians also used gypsum to create a smooth white base for painting.

At some point, people realized that they could either paint the hide cover or apply a layer of gypsum on top of it and paint that. The hide also reinforced any joins between planks and compressed the board from all sides. The gypsum layer also protected the hide from changes in humidity which could cause it to expand or contract.

Middle Plank of a ‘Celtic’ Shield from La Tène

An intact spear and the middle plank of a shield from the famous excavations at La Tène, Switzerland. Planche II of P. Vouga, “La Tène: Quatrième Rapport, Foulles de 1910 et 1911,” Musée Neuchâtelois, XLIXme Année (1912) pp. 7-15 http://doc.rero.ch/record/12454

Whenever this tradition was started, it was long-lasting. We can trace it in surviving shields from the second century BCE until the abandonment of wooden shields in Europe in the 17th and 18th century. Until about 800 years ago, most of these shields are not very well preserved. At the famous lakeside site of La Tène in Switzerland, the shields were broken up into their separate boards which were found separately. Sculptures and Roman writers tell us that Celtic shields were painted, but that paint does not survive.

Viking Shield from the Isle of Man (10th century CE?)

Fragment of gesso from shield face, Ballateare, Man 10th cent., after Bersu and Wilson (1966). Image c/o Peter Beatson, “The ‘Viking Shield’ from Archaeology” (2003) http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/shield/shield.html

In the Viking Age, the best preserved painted shields have no hide cover, so may have been cheap shields for burial (Gokstad ship). Decayed shields show us the hide cover on one or both sides of the wood, but only tiny fragments of the painting http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/shield/shield.html Even if a panel painting was kept indoors, in a thousand years it is likely to fall victim to fire, water, or insect attack.

One of the problems studying the history of technology is that the people who made things were not the people who wrote and collected books. But around 1120, a Benedictine monk named Theophilius wrote a handbook to painting, glassworking, and metalworking. Theophilius was interested in making beautiful things to glorify his god, and some of those things were folding altars and painted doors.

The individual pieces for altar and door panels are first carefully fitted together with the shaping tool that is used by coopers and vat-makers. They should be stuck together with cheese glue which is made in this way:

Cut soft cheese into small pieces and wash it with hot water in a mortar with a pestle, repeatedly pouring water over it until it comes out clear. Thin the cheese by hand and put it into cold water until it becomes hard. Then it should be rubbed into very small pieces on a smooth wooden board with another piece of wood, and put back into the mortar and pounded carefully with the pestle, and water mixed with quicklime should be added until it becomes as thick as lees. When the panels have been glued together with this glue they stick together so well when they are dry that they cannot be separated by dampness or heat.

Theophilius, book 1, chapter 17 tr. Hawthorne and Smith (Internet Archive – for other Latin, German, and English versions see here)

People today who do replica woodwork usually use hide glue from boiling down bits of rawhide and sinew and cartledge. But hide glue comes loose when its hot or wet. Workers making string instruments seem to have reserved it for temporary joins. Cheese glue is not hard to make, and it lasts forever in all weather unless bacteria eat the cheese.

Afterwards they should be smoothed with a planing iron which is curved and sharp on the inside and has two handles so that it can be drawn with both hands. Panels, doors, and shields are shaved with this until they become completely smooth. Then the panels should be covered with the raw hide of a horse or an ass or a cow which should have been soaked in water. As soon as the hairs are scraped off, a little water should be wrung out and the hide while still damp laid on top of the panels with cheese glue.

The text continues in another chapter.

After this take some gypsum burned in the fashion of lime (or some of the chalk-white with which skins are whitened) and grind it carefully on a stone with water. Then put it in an earthenware pot, add some hide glue soaked (in water), and place it on the fire so that the glue melts. (Stir) and spread it over the hide very thinly with a brush. When it is dry, spread a little on more thickly; if necessary, spread on a third coat. When it is completely dry, take the grass called shave-grass, which grows up like a rush and is knobby. You should gather this in the summer and dry it in the sun. With it rub the white surface until it is completely smooth and bright.

Theophilius i.19

Later painters usually recommend more layers of gesso, and sometimes prefer the layer next to the leather to be coarse rather than fine. They agree that the dry gesso should be polished until its smooth and bright. Every artist has their own favourite mixes for gesso, which sometimes include other substances such as marble powder or white pigment. Some shields also have a layer of other materials such as ground glass.

If, indeed, hide for covering the panels is lacking, they may be covered with common and new cloth in the same way using the same glue. (Si vero defuerit corium ad cooperiendas tabulas, eodem modo et eodem glutine cooperiantur cum panno mediocri et novo. my. tr.)

The Greek historian Polybius says that Roman shields are covered first with linen cloth and then with cowhide. After about the year 1300 many surviving European shields are covered with linen or hemp cloth. By the 15th century, panel painters in Italy usually just used strips of cloth to cover the joins between planks and any knots, cracks, or other weak spots.

Lets summarize. To make a plank shield, you take wooden planks, smooth the sides with a plane or spokeshave, and glue them together into a shield-board. Then you carve down the face of the shield-board and smooth it. Early European shields usually have only 3 mm of wood at the rim, and 6 to 10 mm in the centre. later pavises and jousting shields are thicker and less tapered, but often have complicated shapes. You glue a layer or more of linen cloth, hemp cloth, rawhide, or leather onto one or both sides of the shield-board. Then you can apply a layer of gesso to give a smooth white surface, or just start painting and gilding.

A Central European Shield ca. 1450 CE

A jousting shield from Franconia. Late in the middle ages, heraldry included both a heraldric device to paint on your shield and a crest to wear on your helmet in tournaments. Restoration in the late 20th century revealed the original painting under a thick dark overpainting. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/22876

Theophilius was a monk from a rich monastery, so he could devote his time to making beautiful things for his God. But many painters lived in a commercial environment. We get a glimpse of this environment in the treatise of Cennini di Andrea Cennini. Cennini wrote a treatise around 1400 which reflects both the money-oriented world of work and the polished, intellectually sophisticated world of princely courts. Cennini makes it clear that a good painter should be able to make everything from a fresco to an ornamental box. He saw drawing, painting on panel, and painting on walls as the three basic divisions. But when he discusse specific pigments, he often mentions offhand that a particular pigment is used on shields. These included expensive and dangerous orpiment and cheap indigo and lime white. In central Europe the guilds of shield-makers and painters were closely related. The painters’ guild often had a shield as part of their arms, and at Prague the two guilds merged to avoid disputes over who should paint the finished shield (Breiding, “Late Medieval Shields in the Philadelphia Museum of Art – A Survey,” Peter Finer auction 2001 http://myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.2711.html). In German, der Schild is still what you wear on your arm, but das Schild is a street sign.

Cennini 73-74 (ch. 47: orpiment tempered with glue is a good pigment for lances and shields), 80 (ch. 53: a mix of two parts orpiment and one part indigo tempered with glue is good for lances and pavises), 92 n. 20 (the Venetian MS in Tossati 199: 214 says that the lowest grade of lapis lazuli pigment is suitable for shields), 124 (architectural term for overhanging roof), 186 (ch. 156: on pavises or panel, use indigo and St. John’s white tempered with glue)

(There are many more European painted shields in the Metropolitan Museum of Art such as https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/23333 )

A Shield by Khooshal Dhunjee and Sons ca. 1875 CE

A round dhál shield by Khooshal Dhunjee & Sons of Abmedabad, India (c. 1875?). For more information see the Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/702016

In the late 19th century, Khooshal Dhunjee and Sons ran a business as painters and shield-makers in Ahmedabad, India. They signed one of their round dhal shields which ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/702016 Even though a shield has a short working life, they still gave it a very precise design with vivid colours. So the connection between painting and shield-making was long-lasting and widespread.

Early paints usually consist of a pigment or colour and a binder or temper. The binder sticks a thin layer of pigment to the surface, and the pigment gives the surface its colour. There are so many combinations of pigments and temper that they could easily be their own talk. Theophilius prefers egg yolk for painting on panel. Other common choices are tree gum, egg white, hide glue, wax, and milk. Tempera painters find that some binders work better for different pigments and surfaces than others. Painting was often combined with work in metal leaf, especially gilding. There are also various clear overlayers or varnishes which can be applied to protect the paint underneath. Distinguishing between the original paint or varnish and things added by conservators or restorers can be a challenge. I have never done tempera painting, but I notice that Theophilius and Cennino Cennini see the different tempers as variations on a theme, whereas moderns often draw sharp distinctions between painting with different binders (eg. they call painting with pigments in hide glue distemper, painting with pigments in gum arabic watercolour, and painting with pigments in linseed oil oil painting).

Desaturated Battles on Screen

The battle in Germania in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000)
Aragorn’s speech to his troops at the Black Gate in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King (2003)
a group of horsemen in quilted coats and caps charge with lances; the scene is dominated by grey and brown
The Tanguts (ake. Western Xia) charge in the climactic battle of Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007). This film was a German-Russian-Kazakh production.
The battle in Blaviken Market in in season 1, episode 1 of Lauren Schmidt-Hissrich’s “The Witcher” (Netflix, 2019) https://youtu.be/dkyxLodIrxo?t=32
a screenshot from a historical drama. The clothes are dark browns, greys, and blacks with light blue hose, the shields are black and faded yellow, the tent is blue-white, and the sky is a faded blue
A clip from a Flemish historical drama on the Battle of the Golden Spurs from 1302 (The Story of Flanders / Het Verhaal van Vlaanderen (Bert Ceulemans and Filip Lenaerts directors, 2023) image c/o The Guardian

Ever since Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in the year 2000, film and TV people love filming battles in their fantasy and historical dramas in shades of black, brown, grey, and dark blue. You see this trope it in the battle of the Black Gates in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King (2003) and at Blaviken Marker in Lauren Schmidt-Hissrich’s The Witcher (2019). So if shields on film or TV are painted, its often a coarse design on a contrasting background. But historical shields are usually colourful, and often had intricate designs. Before industrial chemistry created cheap, colourfast dyes, most of the world was dull earthy tones. People who had a chance to show off some bright colours and detailed pictures usually took it. People before the 20th century usually had more time than work. There is no way to arrange farming or herding or childminding so it gives you the same number of hours of work every week, usually there are slow times and busy times. So the things even poor people had were usually decorated. Shields were often stored indoors on walls or in sacks, so they were protected from rain and sun when they were not in use.

We expect something which takes a lot of work like a painting to be carefully preserved for decades or centuries. But historically, things like votive offerings, flags, and the insides of tombs were often elaborately painted. Making almost anything required many hours of labour, and that labour was not hidden: people grew their own grain, ground their own flour, gathered their own fuel, and baked their own bread. People were used to working hard to prepare something which would be used once. Shields, which might need repair after a single battle, were often as well painted as things which were expected to last for decades. Because humans are ingenious, they could apply the same skills to making and decorating something which was purely ornamental like a panel painting and something which had a short working life like a shield.

(It seems like this trope really became popular around the year 2000, because Hollywood fantasy films from the 1990s like Braveheart and DragonHeart do not use it. Can my readers think of any exceptions?)


Peter Beatson, “The ‘Viking Shield’ from Archaeology.” Christobel & Peter’s Homepage (2010) http://members.ozemail.com.au/~chrisandpeter/shield/shield.html

Benton, Janetta Rebold (2009) Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art. ABC-Clio: Santa Barbara, CA – Denver, CO – Oxford.

Hariclia Brecoulaki / Giorgios Kavvadias / Vasiliki Kantarelou / J. Stephens / A. Stephens, “Colour and Painting Technique on the Archaic Panels from Pitsa, Corinthia,” in S.T.A.M. Mols and E.M. Moormann (eds.), Context and Meaning (Peeters): Leuven, Paris, and Bristol CT, 2017 pp. 15-23


Faltermeier, Christel, and Rudolf Meyer (1995) “Appendix: Notes on the Restoration of the Behaim Shields,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 30 (1995) https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/

Anne Gunnison, Irma Passeri, Erin Mysak, and Lisa Brody (2020) “16. Painted Roman Wood Shields from Dura-Europos.” In Marie Svoboda and Caroline R. Cartwright (eds.), Mummy Portraits of Roman Egypt: Emerging Research from the APPEAR Project https://www.getty.edu/publications/mummyportraits/part-two/16/

Kimmig, Wolfgang 1940. “Ein Keltenschild aus Ägypten.” Germania Bd. 24 Nr. 2, pp. 106-111 http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:16-ger-413717

Nickel, Helmut (1995) “The Seven Shields of Behaim: New Evidence,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 30 (1995) https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/


Paul Vouga, La Tène, Monographie de la station publiée au nom de la commission des fouilles de La Tène (Karl W. Hiersemann: Leipzig, 1923) https://www.academia.edu/66964016/Paul_Vouga_La_T%C3%A8ne

←back to talks

paypal logo
patreon logo