Memorial Shield of Jacob Ortlieb

Ortlieb Totenschild, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artist/maker unknown, German

Geography: Possibly made in Nuremberg, Germany, Europe
Made in southern Germany, Germany, Europe
Date: c. 1475

Medium: Gessoed, painted, and partially silvered wood; iron; leather; rope

55 1/8 x 9 x 45 11/16 inches (140 x 22.9 x 116 cm)

By the early fifteenth century, it was customary for patrician and noble families in the German-speaking lands to suspend elaborate “death shields” (Totenschilde in German) high on the interior walls and pillars of churches, as a way to boost the distinction of their lineages and preserve the memory of their ancestors. The monumental scale of such shields ensured that the decoration would be visible to onlookers below.

Heraldic conventions of the time dictated the composition: the military shield in the center bears the family coat of arms of Jacob Ortlieb (died 1475), and is surmounted by a stylized jousting helm with a crest and mantling. Ortlieb’s wife is commemorated by a small escutcheon to the side. In earlier times, memorials incorporated actual combat helms and shields recycled for funeral purposes.