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Feather Creations. Materials, Production and Circulation. New York, Hispanic Society-Institute of Fine Arts 17-19/06/2004

The Feather Adarga of Philip II and the Escorial Miter

Teresa Ortíz Salazar

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The Feather Adarga

1Feather Adarga D-88

2Real Armeria, Palacio Real de Madrid

3Patrimonio Nacional


4The word “ ADARGA “ designates a shield of Arabic origin ( “ el- darakah“ means “ a shield “) , usually made of leather, which was introduced in Spain from the north of Africa in the thirteenth century. This first adargas were circular, as we can see represented in some twelve century codex like the Biblia de León and the Beato de Gerona. During the thirteenth century the name is maintained but the shield loses its rounded shape and is made of two oval plates or ellipses with their longer sides overlapping, as represented in the Cantigas de Santa Maria ( 1281- 84 ).

5This kidney-shaped pattern became consolidated in the paintings of El Partal and Sala de los Reyes in the Alhambra around 1340, and were widely used in al- Andalus from the latter part of the 14th century to the end of the 16th century.

6Hoffmeyer points out how Cortes and his men had to change their armament when they arrived at Nueva España , realizing that the Hispanic-moorish adargas proved more useful against the aztec armament and tactics than their heavier round shields made of metal and wood. This fact would explain why the adargas are nearly the only type of shield represented in some Mexican codex such as the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. It would also explain why the Mexicans could have sent a parade feather adarga to the Spanish king Philip II in the last third of the 16th century, as a precious gift that showed the natural skill of the native artists and the success of the evangelization process carried out by the conquerors.

7Although no documentation has been found on this matter, the original design for the adarga was probably sent from Spain to Mexico, where the amantecas reproduced the complex iconographic composition on the leather support.

8Buttin explains that north African adargas were usually made of two or more pieces of leather previously folded and glued , then sewed together. A hardened leather plate was attached to the centre of the shield as the support of the handles. As adargas were meant to be hold with the hand and not with the arm, the handles had an arched shape to protect the hand from the blows. Usually the decoration of the adargas was located on the reverse side, facing the horseman, but in the feather adarga D-88 the ornamented side is facing outside. This can be explained because it was a parade shield, used in ceremonies and not in battles.

9Adargas continued to be used until the 17 th century in the “ Juegos de Cañas “ which became very popular in the Spanish Court. There are many examples in the Real Armeria de Madrid, usually painted with diagonal strips, though most of them have lost their painted decoration due to a big fire in the 19 th century.


10The Adarga D-88 from the Real Armeria of Patrimonio Nacional is a kidney-shaped leather shield ornamented with the feather mosaic Mexican technique.

11The ground is divided in quarters representing four allegoric scenes of the Spanish Army victory against the Islam : the battle of las Navas de Tolosa with Alfonso VIII, the conquest of Granada with the Reyes Católicos ( 1492 ), the victory of Tunis with Charles V ( 1535 ) and the naval battle of Lepanto with Philip II ( 1571 ).

12Inside an elliptic medallion on the central part of the shield appear two crowned heron, a winged snake and a dead toad.There is a filacteria on top with the latin legend : “ Serae spes una senectae “literally meaning “ There is no more than one hope for the old age “ simbolizing the fight of the Spanish monarchy against the heretic.

13Framing the composition there is a wide strip decorated with arabesque patterns, leaf motives interlaced with animal figures such as eagles, gallezes and lion heads.

14Manufacture technique and materials : in a general approach we can consider that there are five different organic materials that made up the adarga, that is leather, paper , feather, vegetal fiber and textile .Neither of them have been identified or analised until present .Leather is used as the main support and it is covered with five different scenes in the centre and a separate ornamental band, all of them decorated with the feather mosaic technique applied on paper as it was usual..


15We will start this point with a digital photo of a drawing made by Garpard Sensi between 1838- 1860 for the catalogue of the Armeria Real where he was the illustrator while Jubinal made extensive descriptions. This is the first document of the adarga that we have, and it shows its original colouring somehow idealized but very illustrative to our purpose.

16Another important reference of the same period would be a black and white photograph made in 1875 by Laurent for the photographic inventory of the Armeria. It is indeed the first photo we have of the adarga , and it is very interesting to appreciate the condition report of the object at that time.

17We also have written notice of the adarga’s condition dating from 1898 when Crooke y Navarrot, conde de Valencia de don Juan, refers to the feathers damage in his catalogue of the Real Armeria. He makes a detailed description of the shield and at the end remarks the scareceness of the feathers (“ de plumas ya harto escasas “ ).

18Probably in this period or at the beginning of the XXth century the adarga was placed inside a closed frame, in a vertical position and fixed to a textile support with fifteen nails localized on the outer edge.It was exhibited hanging on a wall on the Stairs leading to the Second Gallery of the Real Armeria. This fact is important because it stood there facing a window for some decades, directly exposed for several hours a day to the sun rays without any filter or protection, causing irreversible damage to the feather colouring.

19Finally in 1990 the present curator of the Real Armeria, Alvaro Soler, took it away to the storerooms. And in 1998 it arrived at the Restoration Department as it was going to take part on a temporary exhibition about Philip II in El Escorial.

20The condition report registered in that moment showed evidence of the great deterioration detected on the different organic materials that make up the object.Is as it follows :

211º / LEATHER : It showed :

  • General dehydration, causing deformations on the outer edge.

  • General insect attack on the inner face, with no evidence of activity at present.

  • Nail holes on the border, causing irreversible physical damages.

  • Oxidation stains around the nails.

  • Tear and abrasions of the material.

  • Generalized dirt on the surface.

  • The two handles originally placed on the inner part are missing.

  • A big patch of leather was attached in an old restoration.

  • A blue velvet rim surrounding the object was probably added in the XIXth century.

222 º / PAPER :

  • Dehydration

  • Detaching from the leather support due to the loss of glue in many areas.

  • Tear and Surface abrasion.

  • There’s a big loss localized on the left side underneath.

  • Darkening and dirt.

233 º / FEATHER :

  • The main part of the feather work is lost, preserving just the remains of the coloured feathers, probably due to biological attack and incorrect manipulation and conservation..

  • General abrasion of the feathers.

  • Colours faded away ( decoloration ) due to inadequate illuminating exposure.

  • Dirt and darkening of the feather mosaic, the general appearance is greyish. Hardly any iridescent effect can be traced.


24Considering the fragility of the organic materials concerned and their level of damage, our main objective was to make a Preventive Conservation approach, trying to maintain the adarga in the most steady conditions possible with the minor intervention.

25First of all, it was necessary to remove the fifteen nails that fixed the adarga to its frame causing irreversible physical damages to the leather.

26Dry cleaning methods were employed to remove dust particles from the surface, using soft brushes and controlled vaccum cleaner with special filters usually used in Textile Conservation..

27No analytical techniques were applied at that time to determine the nature and composition of the leather, paper, glue or feathers. It’s our intention to carry out this laboratory tests in the near future.


28Nowadays the feather adarga can be seen as part of the permanent collection the Real Armeria , in the Second Gallery recently opened to the public.

29It’s exhibited inside an individual hermetic display case, mounted over a perpex support reproducing its shape with an angle of inclination of 70 degrees.

30Although the display case has no independent air conditioning , the Gallery where it stands has temperature and relative humidity control systems, with values of 20-21 º C and 45-50 % R.H

31The illumination is located at the ceiling of the show case, and consists in difussed fluorescent light with values of 35- 40 luxes.

The Escorial Miter

32Second- third of the 16th century

3382,5 x 27,5 cm

34Feather mosaic

35Aztec manufacture

36Patrimonio Nacional


37The only documented fact that we have is that the miter was donated to El Escorial Monastery by Philip II of Spain in 1576.

38There are different theories about the miter’s origin : according to Castelló Yturbide, they were probably made when Vasco de Quiroga, the bishop of Michoacán, returned to Mexico in 1554 after his stay in Rome , where he could have seen other 13 th century miters made of peacock feathers. Quiroga and other missionaries admired and promoted the feather craft which was described in great detail by friar Bernardino de Sahagún and friar Bartolomé de las Casas.

39It is possible that the origin of the miter’s designs can be found in the Escuela de Artes y Oficios de San Jose de los Naturales under the direct supervision of fray Pedro de Gante and fray Diego Valades. The original designs could have been distributed between several feather workshops, and this fact would explain the diversity in colour, composition and quality of manufacture shown in the seven examples preserved until the present day.

40Europeans were astonished by the skill of Mexican feather artists, and feather items soon became collector ‘s pieces. In some cases they were sent to European kings and religious authorities as colonial gifts.


41The Escorial miter is formed by a mexican feather mosaic attached to a textile support.

42This miter follows a complex iconographic composition inspired by a French miniature of around 1500 ( Sauvajeot Collection, Louvre, Paris ) about Christ’s Redemption of Humanity.

43The face of the object, framed by a gothic border containing images of the Apostles and the Church Fathers, is centred on the Crucifixion and shows other episodes of Christ’s Passion .The Four Evangelists surround the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement is represented on top.

44This compositional scheme is repeated on the reverse, centred on Christ Descent into Hell, probably inspired by a Durero engraving. The scene is completed with the Resurrection and the holy Trinity, all bordered by the Prophets.The lappets ( infulae ) complete the Sacred Mystery, representing the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary and the Ascension of Christwith their monograms.

45Francisco de la Maza found more than two hundred human faces represented in this multicoloured composition. The feathers are arranged so as to resemble a painting or a vitral,, an effect enhanced by their metallic sheen when struck by light.


46The miter was restored in 1990 as it was going to be displayed in a Philip II exhibition celebrated at El Escorial Monastery.

47Before the conservation treatment, the following damages were observed in the miter :

48Textile dehydration and consequent loss of the structure, especially on the lappets.

49Textile detachment on the sides of the object.

50Partial feather abrasion.

51Localized loss of the feather work.

52Generalized surface dirt, dust particles and wax deposits.

53Damp stains on the reverse of the object.

54Glue remains on the reverse, possibly due to an old inventory label adhered to the silk lining.

55Prior restorations were noticed, the most visible being a “damasco“ patch attached to the lower part of the miter, with the intention of hiding a missing area. Other intervention could be seen on the infulae , where mending was attempted to fix the upper zone.

56We can consider that in spite of the delicate materials used in this masterpiece, the general structure and the feather work has been preserved in good condition.


57Extensive previous photographic documentation

58Removal of dust particles using soft brushes and a vaccum cleaner with special nozzles and filters to avoid damaging the feathers and the textile support.

59Wax spots were removed mechanically.

60Fixing of detached areas with natural silk thread and special curved needles.

61Shape recuperation was achieved using a system of weights and glass plates usual in textile conservation .It was applied specially on the infulae where the dehydration was more pronounced.

62To hydrate the textile, the object was exposed during a week to an atmosphere saturated with water vapour, maintaining the R.H conditions below 60 %

63Old restorations were not removed to avoid any damage to the object.

64Preventive conservation was chosen as the main objective considering the fragility of the organic materials, and in order to keep the object steady all the treatment was carried out “ in situ “to maintain the usual conditions of temperature and humidity of the Monastery.

65This object is usually kept in storage in very stable conditions and has only been exhibited in two occasions, the Philip II exhibition in EL Escorial in 1998 and the Aztecs exhibition in London in 2002.

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Teresa Ortíz Salazar, « The Feather Adarga of Philip II and the Escorial Miter  »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 25 janvier 2006, consulté le 25 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Teresa Ortíz Salazar

Real Armeria, Madrid

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