Mystery Objects

By Stuart Frost

The V&A has a very large collection of medieval and Renaissance art. It isn’t necessarily easy to identify the precise function of the more obscure objects, even for an expert curator with a lifetime of specialist experience. Many of the objects from these periods are fragmentary and it isn’t always clear what the piece that survives once belonged to.

Mystery Object

I have been enlisting the help of colleagues to scour the collections for a selection of the most challenging artefacts. This is because we’re developing a Mystery Objects display for a Discovery Area in the forthcoming Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. We actually have a very strong list of candidates and we now need to make a final selection of the best. I thought that I’d use this blog as a way of testing reactions to some of the contenders. The first candidate is reproduced to the right. Click on the photograph for a larger image.

There is no substitute for looking closely at a real object in order to fully assess it. In order to counter the difficulties inherent in examining an object from a digital image alone, I’ll provide some helpful background.

The object was made in what is now Germany in 1543. You can see the date at the top of the object in the centre. Above the date are a series of letters. These read as ‘GHIVITDWGPE’ and are probably the initial letters of a German biblical text. Be warned, these letters aren’t particularly helpful in establishing the function of the object! The object is ‘facing’ the right way up and is made of blackened steel. It is about 20cm in height.

To leave your opinion about this mystery object’s function click on the comments link at the bottom of the page. You can also use the comments link to ask for clues. If you post a comment or question I will endeavour to respond within twenty-four hours. I’ll reveal the identity of the object two weeks from today, at which point I’ll also post another candidate for our Mystery Objects display. Good luck!

6 thoughts on “Mystery Objects

Merv Cannon:

Hi….The “Iron Mask” is about 20cm high you say ? Id really like to see a side profile shot…I notice it has a pin on each side. Well, I have two guesses…I think its either !
1. A German tournament helm-visor for the “Kolbentournier” where they only use clubs and often have a more open visor….or 2. Possibly a Rare Horse Muzzle ( I have a couple of c1890 photos of very similar items that are Black German Iron Horse Mussels from around the same time period !) However it would be helpful to know how deep the item is.
Thanks !


Hi Merv,

Both good informed guesses! You’re right with the second guess! I’ll see if I can get the depth measurement to add to the blog text.

Thanks for leaving a comment.

Best wishes,



It looks very simular to an Italian riding mask of the sixteenth century. The principal of it being that as you rode through wooded areas it stoped branches hitting your in the face.

Some of the sporting helmets of today have what could very well be decended from this principal.

So I’m going with a riding mask.


Hi….thanks for leaving a comment. Your guess was well informed and not too far away from the real function. Please look at point 2 in Merv Cannon’s email above for the solution!

Best wishes,



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Assistência Caldeiras Coimbra:

V & A has a very interesting collection of mystery objects. Medieval and Renaissance art is something that fascinates me.

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