June 13, 2012 / 10:31 PM / 7 years ago

A heavenly mission

The wooden gate was half open. I knocked on the door and entered. The room was sparsely lit. Everything in the unexpectedly small workshop was black or grey and the few things that had been colorful in past days were now soot-black. The smell of iron was dominant.

Lisi Niesner

Blacksmith brothers Johann and Georg Schmidberger stood at their workplaces. They did not look up. Smith’s dirty hands rhythmically led down the hammer to a strike. The beats were powerful but with a gentle accuracy. This was a seriously cool scene.

The welcome was friendly but reserved and there was no introduction on how to behave in a blacksmith’s workshop where the iron is heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). There were no precautions at all. Carefully I stepped back and forth inside the workshop in order not to disturb. Hammers and tongs in all sizes were piled on each other next to plenty of pieces of metal in all conceivable shapes. Between all those tools and metal items, I absolutely could not even name, I felt like an intruder.

In 2009 Johann and Georg were assigned a heavenly business. The Vatican engaged the brothers to produce 80 handmade breast harnesses which gradually replaced the 500-year-old harnesses of the Papal Swiss Guard. The need for replacement can be blamed not only on the visible ravages of time, but also today’s men have grown out of the old iron armors. Nowadays people are simply taller. One harness takes 120 hours of handiwork and resembles the ancient piece with just two distinctions; the fact that they have no signs of wear and the two little copyright characters stamped into the harness.

Both men radiated a calmness which I had definitely not expected. Johann sketched out the engraving of the decoration onto a harness with a black felt tip pen while Georg stood at the forge heating another part of a harness. Every movement seemed to be part of a routine. They exchanged work places and working steps without the need for commands. “We are very well attuned with each other since our childhood,” they said while nodding affirmatively. Both learned the blacksmith trade from their father and their father from his father and so forth. The knowledge passed from father to son through five generations.


Johann and Georg’s favorite wrought ironwork is the restoration of medieval swords and lattice gates, heavy locks and huge keys as well as treasure chests. “We make everything from wrought iron, a simple nail or an ancient harness”, Johann, the older brother explained.

The constant sound of a hammer banging on iron was loud and resounded in my ears but the noise was interrupted in patches when they heated the harness parts in the forge or ran their hand over the sculptured metal. In the meantime Johann started to grind another part of the harness to a smooth and shiny surface. Besides these noises, the hissing of the embers and the faint sound of the file, it was unusually quiet, with no conversation between them. The brothers appeared quite modest and to push the work forward seemed to be their only aim. Work was halted from time to time when a visitor, friend or client showed up at the workshop.

To this day, the brothers have delivered 22 harnesses to the Vatican; personal delivery, of course. The collaboration with the Vatican turned out to be very pleasant. Even the Swiss Guard armorer visited the brothers in their workshop. And when they waited outside the Swiss Guard headquarters door they were quickly waved inside. “Indeed, we were allowed to use secret back doors”, they said with a mischievous smile.

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