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Crossbow of Ulrich V of Württemberg

Met curator Dirk Breiding on mystery behind Crossbow of Ulrich V of Württemberg, attributed to Heinrich Heid von Winterthur, 1460.

Dated 1460 in the carved ivory decoration, this is the earliest knoiwn dated crossbow in existence. The ivory is inscribed with the coats of arms of Württemberg and Savoy, referring to the owner, Count Ulrich V of Württemberg (1413–1480), and his third wife, Princess Marguerite of Savoy (1420–1479). Above the trigger is a German benediction rendered in Hebrew letters. This is a rare and early instance of Hebraic script on a personal item intended for a Christian patron. It can be translated as "Hold God dear and be high-hearted!" or "Hold God dear, high-hearted one!"

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Video transcript

Art history is very much like detective work, and if you’re lucky there’s even a mystery to be solved. For hundreds of years, crossbows were the most powerful handheld weapons around. Almost everybody had one, but very few were as extraordinary as this one. The ivory panels are carved with religious inscriptions and with the heraldry that identifies the owner: the coat of arms of Count Ulrich von Württemberg, on the other side his third wife, Margaret of Savoy. There’s even the year in which this crossbow was made, 1460. So the object tells us quite a lot already. But there was still a mystery to be found on its underside: yet another inscription, but this time in Hebrew characters. For over a century, scholars have argued that it just couldn’t be read. One even called it gibberish. This is where the detective story took over. One Hebrew scholar transcribed the Hebrew letters and then read them phonetically, which revealed a German phrase: hab got lieb hoch herze, which roughly translates as “Hold God dear and be high-hearted.” So now we can read it, but still, what does it mean? I found that Ulrich’s wife, Margaret, had commissioned manuscripts and in some of these manuscripts “Hold God dear” was given as the most important religious observation by which to live a good and successful life. You could also find it in military writings that also gave instructions on how to write in secret codes. Knowledge is power. Therefore, knowledge could be encrypted in order to protect it. They used foreign languages, substitutions of letters. So was this German phrase in Hebrew letters a secret code? At this point I discovered a crossbow maker working for Count Ulrich by the name of Heinrich Heid. He had the initia¬¬ls of HH. Those initials matched those two German words at the end of the inscription, “high-hearted.” So there is the possibility that this is the crossbow maker’s secret signature. This crossbow is the perfect example of what fascinates me about art. There are always points where we think we know as much as we can know about an object, and there’s always another door opening up.