Historical targets: they weren't just bull's-eyes.
Back then, to be a good shot commanded such respect that sharpshooters were regarded as honorable citizens and worthy of sitting at the table of honor of the local inn.
During the mid Middle Ages, as firearms came into being, the wreaths at which archers and crossbowmen had so far shot their arrows were "filled in" with pieces of wood so the impacts of the bullets sunk into them could be more easily seen. With the passing of time they began being decorated with simple painted motifs before evolving, in the German-speaking world, into little round pictures--true jewels, yet meant to be riddled with bullets!
Once a year in the Germanic empire, shooting competitions--the Schutzenfesten--were organized and attended by the sharpshooters of a whole region. These meetings provided the participants with the opportunity of being acquainted with each other more closely. As much as shooting contests, these gatherings occasionally functioned as "marriage fairs" as well, as was the case in Oberbozen, now in northern Italy. Many of the targets exhibited in its rifle club display matrimonial themes and love symbols.
The competitors of these prestigious competitions attended by many distinguished guests, belonged to the upper crust and the intelligentsia. The arms they used differed from those by the military and hunters in that they were equipped with mechanisms of higher precision and engraved and filled with gold and silver ornamentation to such a degree they were out of reach of the middle classes.
The sharpshooter was permitted to use his own firearm only (though swapping was allowed between family members), and the bullets fired had to be perfectly spherical.
The contestants tussled for the coveted title "King of the Sharpshooters" within an enclosure adjoining the inn and the skittle playing ground of the host shooting society, generally off-limits to women. Surprisingly, such prejudice didn't prevent women from handling firearms, for all that. In 1648, the Ljubljana shooting society had, among its 390 members, no less than 143 women.
The Schutzenmeister (the master of ceremony) was the most conspicuous character of these contests. Dressed as a buffoon, he officiated as an umpire, a supervisor and a jester. In the course of the competition, a marker signaled the points of impact of the bullets with a wooden spoon, closed them with small, numbered wooden pegs, and gestured the score to the marksman.
Shooting was first done on white targets marked with concentric circles and a round black disc in the center. The painted targets, which would have been badly damaged by too many impacts, were put into place after the title of Schutzenkonig (king of the sharpshooters) was awarded. Marksmanship in this particular case mattered little. It was an honor made to the best scorers of the contest to be allowed to "sign" these little pictures with a single bullet.
In addition to a laurel wreath, the "king" was awarded prizes far from being inconsiderable, such as jewels, cash and live animals. He was furthermore exempted from taxes and duties for a whole year and could brew beer freely. Among the favors bestowed upon him was the right to wear on special occasions the "King's Chain," the most precious possession of the shooting society. It was made up of an impressive number of jewels, precious stones and silver coins, escutcheons, medallions, heraldic shields and trade insignia. At the beginning of the Thirty Years War in 1618, the chain of the Chemnitz shooting society had no less than 161 of them and weighed a staggering 37-1/2 pounds!
On these targets were represented the great figures of history, such as Caesar and Alexander, or mythological divinities such as Ceres, Jupiter or Bacchus.
The themes depicted on the targets used during the easy-going meetings of the shooting societies reflected generally down-to-earth concerns and the local chronicle, such as the election of a mayor, the appointment of a magistrate, a spectacular fire, the going into retirement of a champion, as well as birthdays or marriages.
When a marriage was concluded among society's members or the local upper crust, it was customary for one or the other of the concerned parties to place an order for a painted target with an artist. Represented on it was the couple surrounded with their earthly possessions, such as castles or mansions, their coats of arms and trade insignia or views of the town. Symbols of love and conjugal bliss, such as Eros, Aphrodite or the cornucopia were painted along the edge of the target or on a cartouche. The names of the newlyweds and the date of their wedding were also mentioned.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, when the painted targets reached their peak, hunting themes were popular. A good part of the 120 targets exhibited at the castle of Tittmoning, in southeast Bavaria, are dedicated to this theme. All are not laudatory to the hunters they portray, though. A handful of these round canvases gibe at them and their practices. One shows an eccentric, lying flat on the back of a cow capped with the antlers of a stag, his gun propped up between its horns, hoping in this way to lure a big game animal, while asleep under a tree, another fellow hunter dreams of roasted meat while rabbits, pheasants and partridges gambol around him. At times, bawdy and sarcastic words go along with these little pictures.
In another theme, a jealous husband is depicted firing under his marriage bed where he suspects his rival is hiding. Unfortunately, he hits nothing but his dachshund dog.
In Scheibbs, a small Austrian town west of Vienna, which boasts one of the largest collections of painted targets, the hunting themes are few, unlike the religious, humorous and satirical targets which make up a good part of the 249 works exhibited in its Schutzenscheibenmuseum.
The neighboring Carthusian Monastery of Gaming exerted a great influence on the town and its vicinity, and many targets are devoted to it. Despite the fact it was a strict order, the population showed respect and affection towards it. When, in 1782, Joseph II of Austria decided its dissolution, the people's ire resulted in the commissioning of a series of targets, which either shot the monarch down in flames, or more cynically hailed Friedrich II of Prussia, his archenemy.
The Austrian dynasty and the nobility, patriotic and nationalist yearnings, war and peace, love and marriage, daily life in Scheibbs and epicurean gratification (the "Black Elephant," the inn of the shooting society, is depicted on several targets) inspired, among other topics, the many artists who settled in Scheibbs through the 17th and 18th centuries and contributed to the renown of the town.
Mentioned for the first time in a documentdated 1569, Scheibbs'shooting society carries on the tradition--as do many other sharpshooter associations, though the ordering of a painted target, whose cost is prohibitive nowadays, is a rare occurrence.