The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York has recently made available “five decades of Met publications on art history, available to read, download, and/or search for free.” Literally hundreds of art books and catalogues. And this treasure trove will continue to expand over time.
One of the many publications that caught my eye was “India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900”, edited by Stuart Cary Welch. It is a catalogue of the exhibition titled “India!” held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985-86.
About halfway through the catalogue, I came across an intriguing exhibit in the section “The Muslim Courts: The Mughals”. It was a “gilded cabasset”, cabesset apparently a word to describe a “helmet worn by common soldiers in the 16th century”. The term could possibly have its etymology from the Spanish or Catalan ‘cabeza’ or Portuguese ‘cabeça’ for head. It is described in a book on armour as having “an almond-shaped skull with a stalk-like projection”.
The accompanying note the catalogue reads: This gilded copper cabasset, alive with ornamental animals and scenery, is typically Portuguese in shape, though the repoussé [metalworking technique wherein a malleable metal is shaped or ornamented by hammering from the reverse side to create a low relief] decoration bears the stamp of its Goanese [sic] origin. A hero’s chariot harks back to village bullock carts, and the flowers, trees and beasts, and a huntsman aiming his matchlock at a flying bird all glow with Indian character. This is believed to be the sole surviving example of five such “golden helmets” made in the viceregal armoury of Goa for the Portuguese viceroys of Goa between about 1550 and 1580. It was probably commissioned in about 1560 for Dom Diogo de Menezes, who later led the Portuguese armies during the reign of King Antony. Following the capture of the fortress of Cascais in 1580, Dom Diogo was beheaded by the Duke of Alba. The helmet is thought to have been taken by King Antony to the Azores, where it remained until recently. A similar helmet, presumably captured by the Dutch, was owned by Rembrandt, who painted it in his ‘Man wearing a Golden Helmet’”.
The exhibit, and the above information about it in the catalogue, was furnished by a private collector, one Rainer Daehnhardt from Portugal.
Since then, it has been more or less conclusively established by art historians that the painting mentioned above ascribed to Rembrandt and which currently hangs on display in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (formerly the Staatliche Museen West Berlin) was definitely not painted by the Dutch Master. Specialists at the Berlin Hahn-Meitner Institute for Atomic Research subjected the painting to “70 hours of radioactive bombardment to activate the pigment neutrons and compare their behaviours to those of genuine Rembrandts”. Then it was cleaned to rid it of previous restoration work and examined stylistically in order to arrive at a conclusion. The 20-by-26 ½ inch oil painting is thought to be from the Rembrandt period, but painted by a pupil, certainly someone from the Rembrandt school, between 1650 and 1655. So was it painted under the Master’s guidance or even supervision? Is this how the cabasset became part of the picture? Did it get painted in Rembrandt’s studio, and was the cabasset among the items on offer to be used as a prop?
Rembrandt was an avid collector; from 1628 onwards he started to build a collection of natural objects (shells, corals), and man-made objects (medals, plaster casts from busts of Greek philosophers and Roman emperors, musical instruments as well as weapons, armour from many cultures and even Mughal miniatures from India).
The cabasset owned by him must have been a war trophy from the long-drawn Dutch-Portuguese War (1602-1663) with the Dutch companies attacking Portuguese colonies in the Americas, Africa, India and the Far East. Goa was a significant theatre in this war, reflecting its importance among the Portuguese possessions overseas not least for its strategic location on the spice trade route. The Dutch-Portuguese war saw several other Portuguese colonies in Asia fall like ninepins into Dutch hands: Malacca (1641), Colombo (1656), Ceylon (1658), and Nagapattinam, Cranganore and Cochin (1662).
The viceregal armoury where the five “golden helmets” originated would probably have been in the Arsenal, along the Ribeira Grande in present-day Old Goa. They were destined either to be luxury ceremonial possessions of the Vice-Roy Dom Diogo de Menezes, or as extravagant gift offerings to gain diplomatic mileage. Excesses such as these were eventually forbidden by royal decree.
The artisans who fashioned these works of art were almost certainly native to Goa. Metallurgy was already advanced to an impressive level, if one goes by the letters of Afonso de Albuquerque, in which he writes to his king Dom Manuel I that guns manufactured by the blacksmiths of Goa were better than those made in Germany.
Two of the five owners of these “golden helmets” seem to have met with a bloody end, as we have seen. What happened to the other three? Will we ever know?
(An edited version of this article was published on 12 April 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)