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Plaque - Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor

Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Vienna (probably, made)
    Germany (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    1650-1675 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Gilt bronze in relief

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 6, The Lisa and Bernard Selz Gallery, case CA13

This plaque is one of nine survivors from an original set of thirteen depicting members of the Habsburg family who had been elected Emperor. This title consciously recalled the imperial power of the rulers of Ancient Rome, and the Emperor, elected by German princes, was expected to act as the secular equivalent of the Pope and defend the Catholic religion. In 1512 this religious aspect was reinforced when the imperial title was modified to 'Holy Roman Emperor'. This alteration may have been prompted by concerns about the emergence of the Protestant challenge to the Catholic religion. From 1438, when Albert II was elected Emperor, the title was virtually hereditary in the Habsburg dynasty. This set of portraits was probably made for someone with strong sympathies for the Habsburg dynasty. The numbering of the images shows the series would have included a portrait (now lost) of Emperor Frederick III, who had usurped the imperial throne in 1314. Holes in the frame of the plaques suggest they were attached to furnishings, such as a cabinet. Series of historical or illustrious figures were a fashionable decorative device in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Such sequences reminded the viewer of the lessons that could be learned from the study of the past.

Physical description

Oval plaque of gilt bronze with a relief portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II gazing 3/4 to his right, his eyes raised to heaven. The silver laurel wreath that would have crowned him is missing; his left hand holds an orb (the cross on the orb is missing); his right hand holds a sceptre (the base slightly bent). Round his neck he wears the insignia of the knightly order of the Golden Fleece. The forearm and hands of the portrait are separately cast and attached at the elbow by a small nut and bolt. The nuts and bolts are handcut with a coarse thread and are technically consistent with an origin in the seventeenth century. The plaque with the portrait is cast in a high copper alloy, and is held by four pins into a separately cast frame of a laurel wreath with myrtle branches wound around it. The upper section of the frame is damaged: the outer edge of the laurel wreath has been eroded and leaves are missing from the twining foliage. Three grooves have been cut into the edge of the plaque at nine o'clock. These grooves are to acommodate a pin to secure the plaque to the frame. Only three pins survive: at 9, 12 and 3 o'clock. The frame is pierced at the top, bottom and sides with four holes which would have secured it to a piece of furniture or a casket.

Place of Origin

Vienna (probably, made)
Germany (possibly, made)


1650-1675 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Gilt bronze in relief

Marks and inscriptions

'Rudolph II by the Grace of God Eternal and August Emperor of the Romans, King of Hungary [and] Bohemia. 1575'
Rudolph's name, imperial and royal titles inscribed around the rim of the oval above his portrait; the date of his election as German King below his portrait.

Roman numeral '10' scratched on the verso of the plaque above the pin hole at the base.


Height: 9.6 cm maximum; part of the upper section of the frame is missing., Width: 9.1 cm maximum, Depth: 3.5 cm deep, Weight: 113.3 g

Object history note

Bought from David Peel & Co. Ltd. For £7,500 (all nine plaques), in 1977.

Historical significance: Depictions of series of historical figures are frequent in sixteenth and seventeenth century printed and painted sources. This plaque, and the eight others which form part of the same series, is a rare example of a set of mid-seventeenth-century relief portrait series that survives in a nearly-complete state. The portraits show the members of the powerful Habsburg dynasty who were crowned King of Germany and elected Holy Roman Emperor (a title revived in 800 CE by Emperor Charlemagne: see Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. IX, 'Emperor'. In 1512, during the reign of Maximilian I, the imperial title was restyled as 'Holy Roman Emperor': see Mölich: 2010, p.173). The emperor officially received his title after coronation by the Pope, and he was expected to defend and extend the Christian world. As a sign of the dual spiritual and military role, all the emperors depicted in this series of plaques wear armour beneath a rich cloak which represents their religious and political importance. The portraits, almost certainly based on published engravings, are are broadly generic, although some of the emperors are distinguished by particular physical features or by aspects of their apparel. The representation of Charles V reproduces his peculiarly exaggerated jaw, a feature depicted in earlier portraits of him (see Checa Cremades 1999). The Emperors Maximilian I, Charles V, Ferdinand I, Rudolph II and Ferdinand III all wear around their necks the chain and pendant which symbolises their election to the knightly Order of the Golden Fleece. (The Order of the Golden Fleece, or 'la Toison d'Or' in the original French, was founded in 1429-30 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to honour his new wife Isabella of Portugal. The politics of dynastic marriage meant control of the Order, whose knights were limited to 24, passed to the Habsburg family in 1477. See Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. XV, 'Knighthood'.)

Historical context note

Pin-holes in the frame of all the plaques in this series of nine suggest they were made to be applied to a wooden surface, probably that of a cabinet or, perhaps, of a large casket. Roman numerals scratched into the back of the plaques themselves indicate they were to be displayed in chronological order according to the reign of each emperor. Series of portraits of illustrious men and historical figures had become fashionable as decorative schemes for studies and libraries in sixteenth-century Italy. Such series were inspired by Classical models, and continued to be popular in the seventeenth century (for examples of such schemes, see Bullard 1994; Dorival 1970). Plaques with cast or engraved scenes or portraits were applied to furniture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see for example V&A W.36-1981 and V&A W.24-1977 [and compare with a seventeenth-century Dutch cabinet sold at Christie's London, 30 November 1972, lot 94]).

Descriptive line

Plaque, oval gilt bronze in relief, with a portrait of Rudolph II (reigned as Holy Roman Emperor 1576-1612), South German or Austrian, ca. 1650-1675

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Radcliffe, A. F. Set of nine portrait plaques of Habsburg Emperors. [Assessment of the objects prepared in 1977; see V&A nominal file for Peel, David & Co. MA/1/P769, and copy on Sculpture Section object card.]
Dorothea Diemer. "Schweigger, Georg." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 3 Feb. 2011 .
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910.
"Holy Roman Empire" World Encyclopedia. Philip's, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. National Art Library. 3 February 2011
Bullard, M. R. A. Talking Heads: The Bodleian Frieze, its inspiration, sources, designer and significance. In: The Bodleian Library record, 14.6 (April 1994), pp. 461-500.
Dorival, B. Note sur la part de Philippe de Champaigne dans le décoration de la Galerie des hommes illustres du Palais Cardinal. In: Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6th series, vol. 75 (May 1970), pp. 254-330.
Checa Cremades, Fernando. The image of Charles V. In: Soly, Hugo and Wim Blockmans et al, eds, Charles V, 1500-1558, and his time. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1999, pp. 474-489. ISBN: 9061534356
Mölich, Georg. Beharren und Aufbruch: Kaiser, Reich und Territorien. In: Renaissance am Rhein. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz; Bonn: LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, 2010. Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Landesmuseum Bonn, 16 September, 2010 - 6 February, 2011. ISBN: 9783775727075.
Medlam, S. and Ellis Miller, L. (eds.) Princely Treasures: European Masterpieces 1600-1800 from the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publishing, 2011.

Labels and date

Austrian (Vienna); about 1650
Gilt bronze and silver

These plaques originally formed part of a set of thirteen depicting the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hapsburg dynasty, beginning with Rudolph I (reigned 1223-1291), and ending with the then Emperor Ferdinand III (reigned 1637-1657). They were probably originally mounted on a cabinet.
[1993 - 2011]


Bronze; Gold




Plaques & Plaquettes; Royalty; Portraits; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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