The Pontifical Swiss Guard is one of the oldest military units in the world. Established under Pope Julius II in 1506, this exceptionally elite military force is charged with protecting the pope and the Vatican.
Swiss guards stand at attention before the start of the Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 27, 2016 | (REUTERS/Max Rossi)
The Pontifical Swiss Guards are unique in many ways — they are relatively small (just 110 soldiers) and the selection process is one of the most rigorous — but their iconic striped uniforms may be their most striking quality. But this is no costume. The colorful Renaissance-style garb, medieval weaponry, and intricate armor date back to the Swiss Guards' inception. In fact, the metal harnesses the guards wear are 500 years old.
By 2009, such centuries-old armor was in need of an upgrade. When the Vatican required highly skilled metal artisans — a rare breed in this age of industry and automation — it turned to blacksmith brothers Johann and Georg Schmidberger, the fifth generation in a 200-year-old family business in Molln, Austria.
Johann Schmidberger works on a suit of armor for the Vatican's Swiss Guards at his workshop in Molln, Austria | (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
The Vatican ordered 80 breast harnesses, which would gradually replace the ancient collection. Each harness takes roughly 120 hours to weld and fashion and, besides being brand new, the final product is indistinguishable from the original. Since 2009, the brothers have produced approximately 10 of the Swiss Guard's arm-and-torso pieces each year. Each finished piece is delivered personally to the Vatican and put immediately into rotation.
Once this order is complete, the Vatican likely won't need further metalwork for a few hundred years, the brothers estimate. Their small family workshop will continue to produce the Guards' unique helmets, as well as metalwork for other clients, including locks, swords, gates, and other items, typically for private collectors, theaters, and hobbyists.
Take a look at the careful, painstaking craftsmanship behind the Swiss Guard's iconic armor:
New Vatican Swiss guards adjust their uniforms prior to a swearing-in ceremony at the Vatican on May 6, 2016. | (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)