The turtle’s carapace: a curious painting support or a battle shield?

For a 17th century artist, it would have been common practice to paint on canvas or wood, while every now and then a more unique support such as ivory or copper was used. Besides these image carriers, there are some that are so rare and so peculiar that they spark as much interest as the work of art itself. Turtle carapaces certainly belong to this category of extremely rare supports. It seems likely that such an uncommon image carrier adds an additional layer of meaning to the artwork, why else would someone decide to paint on a turtle shell? The eccentricity of the support made the Turtle Team wonder what the connection between the choice of image carrier (the shell) and the portrayed (Prince Frederick Henry) could be.

The turtle: slow and stable, or a sign of power and military?

Because of their long lifespan, slow movement, and sturdiness, turtles often symbolize good virtues such as stability, patience, and wisdom. While this is true in many cases, like in Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, there are various other examples that use the turtle as an image or reference to something less friendly. This excerpt from Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Cleopatra comic shows the Roman army approaching the stubborn Gauls in a formation that is known as the tortoise.

The Tortoise and Hare Manoeuvres, Goscinny, René / Uderzo, Albert: Asterix and Cleopatra, Leicester 1969, p.39, detail

While the retreating tactic the hare is just a playful invention and reference to Aesop’s fable, the tortoise was in fact a common strategic manoeuvre for the Roman army. Many ancient writers such as Livy (59 BC-17 AD), Plutarch (45-120 AD), and Tacitus (56-117 AD), refer to this tactic, using the Latin term testudo. Although depictions of it are quite rare, a tortoise formation can be found on both Trajan’s and Marcus Aurelius’ columns in Rome (113 AD and 193 AD respectively).

The carapace: shell or shield?

The testudo formation is not the only connection between our painted turtle shell and the military realm however. The term scute, which was discussed in earlier blogs, derives from the Latin word scutum, signifying the Roman’s legionary shield. This etymological connection between the turtle’s carapace and the term “shield” seems to be no coincidence, as there are many examples that point towards the turtle shell being used as an actual shield in combat. 

 Johann Wilhelm Bauer, Bataglia de Indiani, 1633, 105 x 140 mm (RP-P-1966-346). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

On this etching from 1633 by the German engraver Johann Wilhelm Bauer (1607-1640), we see a battle between native people of South America, here called indiani. Once you look closer, one remarkable thing stands out: the people fighting use turtle carapaces as shields. Several soldiers hold shells that seem to have handles attached to the inside. For one poor soldier who has fallen to the ground and is close to defeat, the shield did not prove to be of enough protection. It is not known what source Bauer based this picture on, but there are no records of him visiting the New World. Was it just his playful imagination of these civilizations, or is there more to this?

The latter seems to be the case, as this print is not the only example of a carapace represented as a battle shield. In Resurrection (1457-59)by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), a turtle shell is depicted on the floor in front of the marble sarcophagus from which Christ appears. A red sword lies on top, possibly indicating that these might belong to the sitting soldier with the red cap.

Andrea Mantegna, Resurrection, 1457-59, tempera on panel, 70 x 92 cm (1803-1-25), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours

Furthermore, an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Sea Monster from c. 1498, shows a merman emerging from the water, holding – you guessed it – a turtle carapace as a shield.

Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster (Das Meerwunder), ca. 1498, engraving, 24.8 x 18.9 cm (19.73.80), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One question that springs to mind when looking at turtle shells being used as shields is whether they would be robust enough to serve effectively in battle. Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), a 16th century Swiss natural scientist, describes how strong the carapace actually is in his History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1607):

It is not without great cause that this shell is called Scutum, and the Beast Scutellaria, for there is no buckler and shield so hard and strong as this is. And Palladius was not deceived when he wrote thereof, that upon the same might safely passe over a Cart-wheel, the Cart being loaded.

Gessner implies that a turtle’s shell is strong enough to endure great stress. Could it then be that the depictions in the works by Bauer, Mantegna and Dürer were not purely imaginative or symbolic, but are based on real-life experience? 

An interesting example of turtle shells used in combat, takes us from the West to Japan. Tinbe Rochin is a traditional form of martial arts that dates back to the 14th century, and originates from the Ryukyu islands of Japan. The name refers to the specific combination of a short spear (rochin) and a shield (tinbe). The latter could be made of various materials, but one of the most prevalent types, even nowadays, is a sea turtle carapace. Although it is not specified if a certain turtle species was preferred, carapaces were available in abundance, as turtles were the Ryukyu island’s primary source of food. It is still practiced nowadays, although it is one of the least known forms of martial arts. A demonstration of a tinbe rochin routine, with turtle shield, can be seen here:

Returning to the Rijksmuseum

Up until this point we have seen various depictions of turtle carapaces as shields, but surviving real-world examples from shells that were used in combat are rare, if they exist at all. However, there might be an example in the collection of the Rijksmuseum: an unpainted shell with several metal reinforcements and other types of repairs. It is approximately 74 cm long, and 63 wide, and thus quite a lot smaller than the shell used for Frederick Henry’s portrait which has a length of 112 cm. It also seems to be a different species of sea turtle, most likely the Kemp’s Ridley or Olive Ridley.

Nothing is known about its provenance prior to its arrival in the museum’s collection. Is it possible that this is a rare example of a turtle carapace that was used as a shield? The shell is reinforced on the inside with wood and canvas, and copper wire. There is a label stating ‘wapenkamer Boog V’ which could indeed mean that it once was displayed or kept in an armoury room. 

The metal reinforcements indicate that the shell has endured heavy stress, possibly in combat, and was therefore repaired so it could be used again. Moreover, the presence of scratches on the surface of the metal could be indicators of damage caused by swords. It is the combination of these features, plus the label, that make us believe this object might once have functioned as a shield. Puzzling however, is the lack of handles or traces of additions on the inside, which you would expect on a shield. Holes at the top of the shield, although it is not known when these were made, indicate that at some point it was hung on the wall, perhaps in a cabinet of curiosities, or indeed in an armoury room. 

DNA research might reveal its age and origin, which can aid in answering some of these questions. Such analysis is planned to be conducted in collaboration with researchers at Exeter University and Wageningen University, on all three Rijksmuseum shields, but unfortunately COVID-19 has prevented this from happening so far. The lockdown has also made it impossible for us to get to see the object in real life, and examine all its interesting features up close. Although we can’t wait to do this, at this point we can only tentatively speculate.

Prince Frederick Henry

It is in any case unlikely that the richly decorated carapace with the equestrian portrait of prince Frederick Henry would have been used as a shield in combat. It seems plausible though to assume that the military function of the support was the iconographic motivation for its choice as an image carrier. After all, the prince (1584-1647) was a very successful commander of both the Dutch States Army and the Dutch Navy during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). This war, also often called the Dutch War of Independence, was an uprising of seventeen provinces against the rule of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). The war ended with the Treaty of Münster in 1648, which terminated the Spanish rule over the revolting provinces, and formally recognized the Dutch Republic as an independent state. Frederick Henry was one of the main commanders on the side of the Dutch, and led the army during many successful sieges and captures of important cities, such as Grol (1627), ‘s-Hertogenbosch (1629), Maastricht (1632), and Breda (1637). Among those, the capture of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1629 was his primary achievement, as the city was the main Spanish stronghold in the Netherlands. Following his successes, portraits of Prince Frederick Henry on the back of a rearing horse in front of a conquered city became very common. Many paintings and prints survive that show this exact same subject, often with near-identical iconographical and stylistic characteristics. 

The portrait on the back of the turtle shell belongs to this group of artworks, with ‘s-Hertogenbosch being depicted on the background of the painting. The clear similarities between the various images lead us to believe that this representation of the prince had become a sort of staple image. Since nothing is known about the provenance of the piece, we can only speculate about its commission and origin. The quality of the painting itself is not exceptional. If it was commissioned by Frederick Henry himself, he would have possibly approached a well-known, successful artist. Moreover, if this were the case, it is likely that more documentation would have survived about the artwork’s history. Probably the portrait was commissioned by someone who wanted to show off their connection to the famous prince, especially in the wake of his successful military endeavours. But why would the patron have decided to commission a portrait on the back of a turtle shell? 

While we may never know the answers to these questions, we believe this must have been a conscious decision that adds a substantial layer of meaning to the image itself. All the connotations of the turtle shell that were discussed above come together in the meaning of this piece: the turtle as a military tactic as discussed by various ancient writers; Conrad Gessner’s description of the strength of the turtle carapace; and the use of a turtle shell as an actual shield in combat. These connotations, as well as its preciousness, are not something that we only notice today. No doubt, 17th century viewers of the portrait must have been equally surprised about the support and impressed and also amused by its references..

The Turtle Team

Further reading

Julia Saviello, “Schildkröte – the Turtle’s Shield,” in Object Fantasies: Experience & Creation, eds. P. Cordez, R. Kaske, J. Saviello, and S. Thürigen, 107-124. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2018

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