This will be the first of a new series of articles we shall be writing, regarding historical eras, figures, battles etc of interest to the modeller and figure painter. Some will be quite extensive, others like this one shall be more of an overview, but we hope all of them will become an essential reference to those who wish to follow their interest in historical figure painting.
Medieval figures, and knights in particular, are a widely popular subject for painters. They’re also an area where historical figures and fantasy figures overlap. A kit for a medieval figure meant as a historical piece can be easily converted to a fantasy piece through the design and color choices or by placing them in a fantasy scene. But what if you actually wanted to paint that knight as a historical subject?
Thanks to fantasy works and movies/tv/etc sometimes the picture in our heads of how knights looked and dressed doesn’t actually match up to the historical evidence. My goal in this article is to provide reference material on how historical knights actually should look. Of course, you can choose to paint up your figures however you want. I wrote an article that discussed the different approaches (strict and more lenient) to historical accuracy . Yet I would argue that if you’re going to deviate from what would be historically accurate, do that because of artistic reasons, not because you just don’t know what’s right and what’s not.
There’s no way I can cover all the information about knights in a single article. So I’m going to focus on the crusading orders (though I’ll give a few tips at the end for other knights).
THE CRUSADES AND THE CRUSADING ORDERS
I’d like to begin with a very very brief overview of the crusades. These were a series of campaigns sanctioned by the Latin Church between the 11th and 16th centuries. The first Crusade (1069-1099) resulted in the capture of Jerusalem by the Christian forces and the creation of several crusader states in the holy land.
Land captured during this crusade, including Jerusalem, was lost over time and numerous additional crusades were undertaken to recapture it (along with a host of other reasons).
The military (crusading) orders played a major role in providing support for the crusader states. The three most well-known of these orders are the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights. The first two operated in the crusader states (also referred to as Outremer) while the Teutonic Knights focused on the Baltic region. These following sections will take a closer look at each of these three orders.
Perhaps the best known of all the crusading orders were the Knights Templar. The monastic order was created shortly after the first crusade in order to protect the pilgrims coming to the holy land. The new king of Jerusalem granted the order a headquarters in a portion of the royal palace on the Temple Mount, believed to be over the ruins of the Temple of Solomon.
The order took the name Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, which was shortened to ‘Templar’ knights. Initially a poor order of 9 knights, the order soon received the approval and endorsement of the church and became a favourite charity within the Christian kingdoms of Europe. The order quickly grew and its knights often served as the advance shock troops in many key battles of the crusades.
In the mid 1100’s, the tide began to turn. The Templars were involved in a number of unsuccessful campaigns and the defeat of the crusader forces at the battle of Hattin. Jerusalem was soon after recaptured by the forces of Saladin. The order moved their headquarters to Acre and remained their until its fall in 1291. Removed from the holy land, the order’s military functions became less important.
However, during its 200 year existence, the order had amassed great wealth, businesses and lands within Europe. The Templars had an extensive presence throughout Europe, however it was not subject to local government and its army could pass freely through borders. This created tensions with European nobility and lead to King Philip IV of France, who owed a great sum of money to the Templar order, ordering the simultaneous arrest of the Templar grand master and the rest of the order.
A variety of charges were made against the order and confessions obtained through torture. Under pressure from the King, the Pope dissolved the order and issues instructions for other kingdoms to arrest all of the Templars and seize their assets. Many Templars, including the grand master were burned at the stake. Others were allowed the join the Hospitaller order or retire. Still others fled to regions outside of papal control.
Knights of the Templar Order wore white surcoats with a red cross upon the front. They also wore a white mantle (cape-like cloak) with a red cross. Sergeants of the order wore a black or brown tunic with a red cross and either a black or brown mantle. Aside from the color of their clothing, the knights and sergeants of the Templar order can be distinguished by their equipment. Knights wore helms (style depending on the era) along with chain mail that covered their arms and legs. Sergeants were issued the kettle hat (see in the image above) and typically did not wear mail that covered their arms and legs (though the image above would indicate otherwise). Some example figures mix and match the white surcoat on the knight with the black mantle. While visually interesting, this is not historically accurate and is instead artistic license.
The red cross of the Templars is made up of four arms that are of uniform thickness and that flare out at the ends.
The Knights Hospitaller or the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem arose from a group associated with the Amalfitan hospital in the Muristan district of Jerusalem around 1023 (prior to the first crusade).
Their original purpose was to provide care for the sick, poor, or injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. After the first crusade the Hospitallers became both a religious and a military order, expanding their operations to providing pilgrims with armed escorts.
Along with the Templars, the Hospitallers were one of the most formidable military orders in the Holy Land. During this time the Hospitallers had seven great forts in the area, the two largest being Krak des Chevaliers and Margat.
Following the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, the Hospitallers relocated to the Kingdom of Cyprus and then chose Rhodes as their new home (becoming the Knights of Rhodes). Eventually, in 1530 they were given Malta by Charles I of Spain and became the Knights of Malta. Their order, while no longer in Malta, continues to exist to this day (though in a much different form than that of the crusading era).
The dress of the early Hospitaller Knights was black with a white or silver cross. Eventually the knights began to wear red with a white cross, while the sergeants continued to wear black. In 1248, Pope Innocent IV approved a standard dress for the order consisting of a red surcoat with a white cross. At this point all ranks, not just the knights, wore red. There was a small period of time where the black and red be mixed so you could see a knight wearing red surcoat with a black cape (though no evidence of the reverse). However, matching colors for the surcoat and cape was more common.
The cross on the Hospitaller uniforms is a distinctive eight pointed cross consisting of four v-shaped arms. The eight points represent the eight aspirations of the knights: to live in truth, have faith, repent one’s sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and whole-hearted, and to endure persecution.
The Teutonic Order was formed in the aftermath of the 3rd Crusade (1189-1192). The Third Crusade was a bit of a disaster for the German forces. Their emperor, Frederick I, died on his way to the Holy Land (drowning while crossing a river) and only a small portion of the Imperial army arrived at Acre to participate in the siege. However, a German field hospital was established at Acre and, in 1198, was granted a Papal recognition as an independent military order. The Brethren of the German Hospital of St Mary would become more well known at the Teutonic Knights.
The order was not as rich as the Templars or Hospitallers, but it still acquired land within the Crusader States and its fortress of Montforth in Palestine became its new headquarters. The Teutonic Knights lost Montforth in 1271, effectively ending their power in the Holy Land. However, the order remained and began to play a more significant role in eastern Europe.
Even before they completely left the Middle East, the Teutonic Knights were active in Europe. In 1211 the knights arrived in Transylvania, raising hopes for a Catholic Empire of Romania. Although they had been invited by King Andrew of Hungary, they overstepped their authority and began erecting stone fortifications.
This implied a more permanent military presence and, in 1225, they were expelled by King Andrew. The order then turned their attention to the Baltic and established a base at Kulm (in what is now Poland). The Teutonic Knights operated at the strong arm of German Imperial policy in Prussia, Poland, and other eastern territories. The Teutonic Knights remained an active player within the region until their defeat to an alliance of Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Mongols, and assorted mercenaries at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
The Teutonic Knights briefly became a crusading order again in the late 1400’s to combat the Ottomans. However, the order had little military impact after that. Still, the order remains to this day, though only as a monastic and charitable organisation.
The standard uniform of the Teutonic Knights was a black cross on a white background. The coat of arms for the Grand Master of the Teutonic order is a golden (yellow) cross overlaid on a black cross. At the centre of this is the imperial eagle in a small shield (in escutcheon). There is less information regarding their armour, however it seems there was more experimentation in armour within Germany than England or France. While it does not appear to be a requirement of the order, many of the available kits portray knights with elaborate crests on their helmets.
Often times these take the form of large horns or wings emerging from the top of the helmet. The majority of the actual references do not show these on helmets however, this image of Tannhauser from the Codex Manesse shows him dressed in the habit of the Teutonic Order and next to him is a helmet with an elaborate crest.
In addition to the various military orders, numerous knights from the various Christian regions (England, France, Holy Roman Empire, etc) took part in the crusades. These knights would wear their own uniforms, colours, and imagery. If you wish to paint a general knight, you can look around online for reference material that shows the heraldry and colours of specific individuals and base your painting on that. Or you can look to common images and colours. A simple Google image search for ‘knights’ + ‘coat of arms’ will give you a wealth of possible colour schemes and designs to use.
To be historically accurate, it is also worthwhile keeping in mind what sorts of dyes (colours) were available at that time. Common colours would be red, yellow, green, and blue. The deepest and truest version of these colours was the most expensive to create and would therefore be used by the upper classes rather than peasants. The poor would have paler, less expensive shades for their clothing. Below are examples made with period dyes to show you some of the shades that may have been possible.
I hope that gives you some information to work with. If you enjoy working on knights and historical figures, I encourage you to start to build your own library of reference books. There is a great deal of information out there and this just scratches the surface. Thank you for taking the time to read it and best of luck with your painting projects!
David Powell is an award-winning painter. He's taught painting workshops and written numerous tutorials for publication in magazines and online. While he's best known for his work on historical miniatures, he's got a soft spot for fantasy and sci-fi subjects as well.