The Making-of “Zwingli at Novara 1513”

Warrior bishops in the Middle Ages” is the theme of Medieval Warfare III-2. A warrior bishop is both a cleric and a soldier. The inclusion of Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) among the warrior bishops needs explanation, as he was neither a bishop nor a soldier in the narrow definitions of these terms. Zurich did not have a bishop of its own (today, it still only possesses an auxiliary bishop), Zwingli’s leadership in the reformation was based on his morale, and not hierarchical, authority. Zwingli did participate as a chaplain in two campaigns of the Italian Wars and later on was a leading participant of the Wars of Kappel. The Zwingli monument in Zurich, showing Zwingli with bible and sword, confirms the importance of his dual roles. The most difficult aspect to argue about is the era: Zwingli lived during the final days of the ‘proper’ Middle Ages, in an age of transition. While Zwingli championed new things, his key goal was to reform the faith, to make it work again and thus prolong the medieval world. His was a reformed medieval mind.

For the upcoming 500th anniversary of the battle, fought on 6 June 1513, an imagination of its most famous participant, the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, was to be turned into a painting by Mark Churms. The Battle of Novara has the misfortune of being overshadowed. Firstly, by the vastly more important Battle of Marignano in 1515, the battle of the giants (one of them being the new French King Francis I), and secondly by another Battle of Novara in 1849, a decisive Austrian victory over the Italians which forced the abdication of Carlo Alberto Amedeo, King of Piedmont-Sardinia, and put an end to the First Italian War of Independence. In honour of the victory, the Austrians baptized a new sail frigate, SMS Novara, in 1850. The ship undertook a large-scale scientific, around-the-world mission for the Austrian Imperial war navy from 1857 to 1859, called the Novara Expedition.

Historical background

While the battle of Novara 1513 was a confusing and unplanned affair, written testimony about it is quite voluminous. On the French side, nobody lesser than Fleuranges, Robert III de la Marck, offers an account of the battle. On the Swiss side, various letters home to the political authorities exist, among them also a letter to Glarus. Quite a number of Italians also recorded the events. Out of these records, a likely turn of the events of the battle can be reconstituted (see Bangerter 2012, pp. 117-120).

The canton of Glarus had sent out as part of its commitment two contingents of 230 and 400 men. How many of these 630 were present for duty under the command of Ludwig Tschudi the elder on the morning of the battle is unknown. The first contingent in all likelihood carried the small red banner with the white cross preserved and depicted in the Glarner Fahnenbuch (Durrer 1928, p. 13): “This “vändli” (small banner, 112 x 150 cm) has been to Novara near Milano at the battle on the first Monday June against King Louis of France in the year 1513”. The second contingent carried the cantonal banner with Saint Fridolin, probably the same that was used at Dijon. As its presence at Novara is not certain, the imagination uses the small banner.

The battle itself was unplanned for both sides. The men marched to the sound of the guns. The Glarus contingent noted in its letter home that they advanced against the guns and the enemy. Five hundred Swiss had started attacking the enemy artillery and soldiers on their own, while the first main forces were just emerging from the woods. This is the moment depicted in the imagination. While the artillery is booming in the background, the men of Glarus receive their blessing just before the battle. Then the men advanced against a group (“hufen”) of Landsknechte and then a large group of French knights (“küyrsser”) and artillery (“grossem geschutz”) and attacked them while “calling for the help of almighty God, his dear mother Maria and all saints, especially Glarus’ patron saints, Saint Fridolin and Saint Hilarius. They did help and after some time, the enemy fled and we slew many dead” (Gagliardi 1907, p.79-80).

Huldrych Zwingli was present at the battle as chaplain of the soldiers of Glarus. While no account of his actions has survived, there is the testimony of his successor Heinrich Bullinger that he “had behaved honourable and brave during the battles [of Novara and Marignano] with advice, words and deeds.” Zwingli is shown in the dress he is depicted in the posthumous portrait by Hans Asper. Just prior to battle, Swiss soldiers usually knelt down for a quick battlefield blessing by either the commander or a chaplain to pray for victory and survival. The Glarus soldiers would ask Saint Fridolin and Saint Hilarius for their protection.

The painting process

Mark Churms, an experienced artist with a large portfolio of military history paintings, was commissioned to bring the scene of Zwingli at Novara to life.

Stage 1. The concept Ia (landscape) and Ib (portrait) shows Zwingli blessing the kneeling Glarus soldiers in front of the woods, based on location scouting via Google Maps. In order to pack more of the context into the painting, the orientation was changed to portrait.

Stage 2. Mark Churms turned the concept into a sketch; a quick, rough pen on paper layout as a starting point. The gory dead Swiss and broken weapons which had been added in the foreground had to be removed again, as the battle had not yet started for the men from Glarus.

Stage 3. Next, live models were photographed and the scene recreated in Photoshop. Note the flag standing in for its later “sister republick”.

Stage 4. Based on the Photoshop scene, Mark produced an outline on the gessoed board which would be his ‘canvas’. If time allows, he sometimes first produces a detailed pencil sketch and/or color oil study before proceeding to the final painting (especially for larger works and murals etc). However, in this case, publishing deadlines require speed of production, so he went straight to work on the finished piece. Another time saving tip is that he often projects his sketches onto the substrate and roughly sketches the figures out, in Raw Umber, rather than drawing out the whole composition again by hand.

Stage 5. Mark prefers to paint in oils, building up his paintings in layers and glaze. Thus, he often works on the painting as a whole, rather than finishing one area completely and only then moving on to the next. He also uses some wet-on-wet techniques for speed and color mixing (as oil paints take days to dry, most illustrators prefer acrylics or other water based mediums which dry much faster). To start with, he used a Raw Sienna / Yellow Ochre wash (which gives an underlying warmth to the painting and tones down the bright white of the gessoed ground). Then he roughly painted the background of woods, swampy terrain and the smoke from the artillery fire. The time is early in the morning before the Italian sun has made its full appearance.

Stage 6. Zwingli and the soldiers of Glarus are painted in; rough detail first, then gradually adding more detail with each new layer.

Stage 7. Mark adds the details to finish the painting. The artist’s finishing touches include final, bright highlights and some glazes to unify the scene. Upon completion the painting was photographed by the artist in his studio, with a high resolution camera and professional studio lights. The commander on the left is armed with a Lucerne hammer. Its fighting tactics are depicted in the Talhoffer fight book. The flag is under the protection of a fierce flag guard. All the men wore the Swiss cross on their clothes or armour as an identification mark. As far as the clothes are concerned, the 1510s were an age of transition towards the famous Swiss mercenary and Landsknecht styled dresses. Old and new styles would be seen side-by-side, depending on the wearer’s wealth and fashion sense. The first few ranks are armed with pikes (lying on the ground, after having been dragged along the ground through the woods). Men with halberds and other weapons followed behind the pikes. In front of them would be skirmishers with handguns. There is also a kneeling drummer boy and a flutist. Note also the banner of the Duke of Milan in the background, for whom the Swiss were nominally fighting for.

Mark Churms’ final painting can be seen in Medieval Warfare III-2.

BATTLEFIELD BLESSING Pastor Huldrych Zwingli blesses soldiers from Glarus, Switzerland. Battle of Novara, Italy com 2013. All Rights Reserved 1513 © MarkChurms.


- Olivier Bangerter, Novare (1513) – dernière victoire des fantassins suisses (Paris 2012).

- Robert Durrer, Glarner Fahnenbuch (Zurich 1928).

- Ernst Gagliardi, Der Feldzug von Novara 1513 (Zurich 1907).

 Jean-Claude Brunner, a Swiss business analyst living in Vienna, Austria, is a regular contributor toMedieval Warfare. His latest articles are ‘Huldrych Zwingli: A special kind of warrior’ in Medieval WarfareIII-2 and ‘Julius II’s 1512 presentation banners’ in Medieval WarfareII-5. His next article will present the Swiss weapon of choice, the halberd.

Mark Churms is a free-lance military artist. Originally from the UK, Mark now lives and works in the USA (though he frequently travels to Europe). He is available for commissioned works and prints, and he can be contacted by email: Website:

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