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Norman J. Finkelshteyn

Icons on Russian Helmets
By Dmitriy V. Ryaboy
In 1808, a simple peasant woman from a village called Lykovo was collecting nuts when she noticed something shiny in the ground. She stopped her work and examined the find, which was to have phenomenal influence on the future of archaeology. The item she found was the famous helmet of Knyaz Yaroslav, and she was standing on the site of the ancient Lipetsk battle of 1216.

As A. N. Kirpichnikov, the leading authority on Russian arms and armor, says in Drevnerusskoe oruzhie [Arms of the Ancient Rus], "The helmet of Yaroslav Vsedolovich was one of the first objects with which started not only the study of arms, but of ancient Russian artifacts altogether."
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Go to full information on this Helmet at the Helmet Database

The helmet had a profound effect on the popular image of the Rus warrior as well as on archaeology. The gilded conical helmet with a small spike on the top and a large icon of an archangel on the forehead is now perceived as the typical early Russian helmet, and is often depicted in movies and books. This is, however, an untrue image. There are close to 40 helmets dated 10th-13th centuries (37 at the time of Kirpichnikov's publication; more have been found since). Of these, the decoration of only two more helmets is similar to Yaroslav's; there is also scant literary evidence for other icon helmets.

The so-called Yaroslav's helmet is considered to have been manufactured sometime in the second half of the 12th century, and was inherited by Yaroslav after several owners. B. A. Rybakov suggests that the helmet might have even been lost in 1177 by some other warrior, not by Yaroslav in 1216, since there were two Lipetsk battles. In the above-mentioned publication A. N. Kirpichnikov provides a detailed description of the helmet: "The body [of the helmet] is covered with a silver sheet and decorated with embossed, etched, and gilded silver plates: on top - a star-shaped plate depicting the Christ Pantocrator, Saint George, Saint Basil, and Saint Theodore; on the forehead - the figure of archangel Michael with ann etched inscription, 'Great archangel Michael, help your servant Fedor.' A decorative band with depictions of griffins, birds, and snow leopards separated by lilies and leaves runs along the bottom of the helm."

Kirpichnikov points out a beak-like nasal with gilded brows and five "ears" for an aventail (several of them broken). He also refers to the first publication of the find by Olenin in 1833, which mentioned remains of an iron half-mask (oculars). Traces of the oculars can still be found on the rim of the helmet. The helmet was modified at least three times before it was deposited. Kirpichnikov suggests that the person who attached the silver plates to the helmet was not the one who manufactured them - they are not attached with much attention to detail, since some lettering and design is damaged by the rivets. It is possible that the helmet originally lacked these decorations, and they were added when it was acquired by a wealthier owner. At some point after these changes, a spike was added to the top of the helmet - directly over the star-shaped decorative plate - and a half-mask was riveted to the bottom of the helm, "rudely" covering the archangel's feet. It is based on this evidence that one can easily conclude that the helmet changed hands several times until it was lost, or more likely hastily discarded during a panicked retreat.

A similar helmet was found in a kurgan in Nogaisk (not by archaeologists, unfortunately, but grave-robbers). The front of the helmet was decorated with a brass plate about 13 cm. high featuring Saint Procopius and an inscription bearing his name.
Kremlin Armoury, Moscow.
Photograph by Alexander Lemeshko

The last such surviving helmet is different from the others, since it seems to be of Greek manufacture. Now on display at the Kremlin armory, this iron helmet is richly decorated with gold and silver designs, "the Trinity, two angels, two cherubim, two evangelists, and [Saint] Nicholas the wonder-worker." The art style is pre-1250. It is traditionally associated with Alexander Nevskiy, but Kirpichnikov suggests that it could potentially be even older.

There is also literary evidence of helms decorated with icons. The Ipatiev Chronicle records that in 1151 Knyaz Izyaslav Mstislavich fell off his horse in a battle with Andrey Bogolubnyi and was attacked by several warriors from his own army, who did not recognize him as his face was obscured by the visor. One of them managed to hit the Knyaz on the helmet where "golden [Saint] Panteleimon" was depicted, and smashed the helm into Izyaslav's forehead. Fortunately, Izyaslav pulled his helm off in time to be recognized, and avoided being killed by his own men.

Although icons were not as prevalent on ancient Rus helmets as one might be led to think, they seem to have been not uncommon in the latter part of the 12th and early 13th centuries. The two helmets manufactured in Russia (Lykovo, Nogaisk) are both of type IV by Kirpichnikov's classification, sharing that category with four more helmets. Type IV helmets are characterized by having a conical top and a large half-mask, consisting of oculars and a beak-like nasal. A third helmet, of Greek manufacture, also features extensive religious decoration, and can be dated to no later than the first half of the 13th century. Based on this archaeological and secondary literary evidence one can conclude that such helmets were popular among the rich nobility of the late 12th - early 13th centuries. They co-existed with the more traditional simple conical helmets (type IIA), Tagancha-style extremely tall helms with nasals and brow cut-outs (type IIB), and primarily Nomadic type III helmets like Kovali, which features a full face-mask.


A large full-page color painting of Yaroslav's helmet can be found in Klucina, Petr and Pavel Pevny, Armor From Ancient to Modern Times (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997)]

Kirpichnikov A. N., "Drevnerusskoe Oruzhie," Sovetskaia arkheologiia 3 (1971): E1-36.

"Primary Chronicle," trans by D. A. Lihachev.

Rybakov, B. A. Russkie datirovannye nadpisi XI-XIV vv. (Moscow: Nauka, 1964)

Yanin, V. L., "O pervonachal'noy prinadlezhnosti shlema Yaroslava Vsevolodovicha," Sovetskaia arkheologiia 1958.

Copyright Permission Notice: Dmitriy V. Ryaboy hereby gives express permission for reproduction of this article for non-commercial purposes provided that the article is unaltered and includes the author attribution.
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