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Art infused with purpose.

Art in the Service of the King

The highly decorated suit of German plate armor (page 26) probably belonged to Emperor Maximilian II (1527-76). It stands about 5' 8'/2" (173.99 cm) high. The suit appears complete, but it is only part of a larger suit, consisting of as many as 100 pieces, all with matching decoration. Some of the pieces were interchangeable so the armor could be adapted to different functions, including fighting on foot and horseback, and participating in tournaments.

The maker of the suit is unknown, though we think Jorg Sorg the Younger designed its decoration. Sorg was a well-known specialist in armor decoration who worked in Augsburg, Germany, where this suit was made.

Art for Protection

Plate armor was worn in Europe from the 1400s to 1600s. Previously, knights had worn mail when engaged in battle. Once crossbows and longbows could pierce mail, knights needed more protection and armorers began adding metal plates. Eventually, knights were covered in these plates from head to toe!

A complete suit of plate armor was made up of hundreds of parts. Many hinges, straps, buckles, rivets, nuts and bolts held the plates together. Each hard, solid piece of iron or steel protected a different part of the body. For example, the smooth, curving surface of the breastplate deflected weapons and distributed pressure from a blow across the chest. With the flexibility of mail, the impact of a blow would have been concentrated in one spot.

Although plate armor was not as comfortable as mail, knights adjusted. A suit of armor made for battle weighed about 50 pounds, no more than a modem soldier's backpack.

The overlapping plates at the joints allowed a knight to bend and twist with ease. A knight dressed in late armor could mount a horse and get up off the ground after a fall without assistance.

Sights, or long, narrow slits, on the helmet allowed the knight to see, and breaths, or holes, let him breathe. Still, it was hot inside a helmet. To make the knight as comfortable as possible, the helmet had a visor that could lift up when he wasn't fighting.

Art for Decoration

Armor was not only protection for a knight but also was a work of art. Almost all fine-quality plate armor was decorated, especially in the 1500s. The magnificence of the armor was directly related to the status of the owner. The elaborate combination of etching and gold on this armor reflects the prominence of the emperor for whom this suit was designed.

Etching was the most popular form of decoration on plate armor. To create etched designs, a plate was covered with a protective coating of acid-resistant varnish, oil paint, wax or tar. Then, a design was scratched away with an etching needle. Next, the etcher dipped the plate into acid, which ate away the uncovered areas and cut the design into the metal. The coating was then washed away and the etched design blackened.

Gold could be applied to the surface of the armor by a few different techniques. For one method, the surface of the plate was painted with a varnish. Twenty-four hours later, finely beaten sheets of gold, called gold leaf, were applied with a paint brush. The decorated plate was heated gently to dry the varnish and to secure the gold leaf to the plate. The result was a beautiful and functional suit of armor.

Change of Ownership/Change of Status

This armor was originally made for Maximilian II, the eldest son of Emperor Ferdinand I. During the 1550s, when this armor was made, Maximilian II was involved in protecting Austria against the Turks. Perhaps this armor played a function in that military role. In 1562, Maximilian II was chosen king of the Romans and led the empire after his father's death in 1564. Eventually, the armor became part of the Imperial Armory in Vienna.

In March, 1953, an armor collector from New York City, Carl Otto Kretzmar Von Keinbusch, purchased the armor from the collection of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had obtained the suit from the armory of Grafenberg Castle in Austria, a collection whose core had come from the Imperial Armory in Vienna. When Keinbusch died in 1976, he left his extensive collection of arms and armor to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The collection officially opened to the public in 1977.

Thus, the armor changed ownership several times. In the process, its status changed from a functional piece of armor in the service of a king to an artifact of imperial battle to a decorative object in a castle and eventually to an object of art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Looking and Discussing

1. What kind of person wore this suit of armor? How do you know? (The fanciness of the decoration suggests that the s t was worn by an important and wealthy man, Emperor Maximilian II.)

2. What is the function of a suit of protection and decoration) How would this suit of armor protect a knight? Why would someone wear a suit of armor this fancy?

3. Armor had to be flexible or else it would not sufficiently protect the wearer. How did the armorer make this suit flexible? (Overlapping pieces at the joints allowed the armor to move with the knight. The shape of the armor reflected the shape of the human body.)

4. Plate armor has individual pieces for the legs, arms, chest and head. How are the pieces attached to the knight and to each other? (buckles, straps, rivets, nuts and hinges)

5. Even though covered m sheets of metal, the knight still needed to see and breathe. What did the armorer do to adjust for these functions? (slits for the eyes, holes for breathing)

6. Notice the armor for the head of a horse next to the knight's armor. Why would a horse wear armor? (protection and decoration)

7. Choose one of the individual parts of this suit of plate armor, or the piece for the horse. Sketch the designs from that piece. Trade the design with a classmate. Can she or he find the piece of armor you chose?


The artist who created the decoration for a suit of armor could be as important and famous as the armorer. Armor decorators thought carefully about color: how black, silver, gold and sometimes other colors would look together; and designs: how thin and thick line patterns, and drawings of flowers, animals, instruments and people would fill the surface of the suit. Sometimes these decorations told something special about the knight who would be wearing the armor. Armor decorators also thought about the overall shape of the suit of armor and often tried to emphasize the edges with decoration. Before an armor decorator would ever have touched the actual suit, he would have made many plans for the designs on paper.


* Have students create their own designs for a full suit of armor or a breast plate. Students can trace each other on large sheets of kraft paper or draw a simplified breastplate shape, essentially, a pointed shield shape with cut outs for the arms to use as their armor model. After creating their models, have students plan and then draw or paint their decorations onto their armor models. Have students share their armor designs after they are finished and discuss why they decorated their armor the way they did. * Discuss the use of protective clothing today. Display a collection of pictures of protective clothing for sports or work. (See page 3 1.)

Middle School

* Use metal tooling foil to create a bas-relief design for a personalized shield to accompany a suit of armor. Do research on shapes of shields and the symbolism of shields. Build medieval badges, flags and banners. Compare these to contemporary symbols used by sports teams and corporations.

* Discuss the decorative and functional elements of sports uniforms and protective clothing. Make a collection of the symbols used by various sports teams. Invent a new sport and design a protective uniform with rich symbolism. (See page 31.)

High School

* Create an etched design on a copper or aluminum shape that could serve as a bookmark or other small functional object. Look to the decorations in armor for inspiration.

* Discuss the changing status of this armor from functional, protective clothing to an object of art. Consider which ordinary objects of today might eventually be displayed as objects of art. Create a mini-museum in a school display case using ordinary objects displayed as fine art, with appropriate labels. Observe, record and discuss reactions of other students.


Edge, David, and John Miles Paddock. Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. Greenwich, CT: Cresent Books, 1988.

Geis, Frances. The Knight in History. NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1984. Nickel, Helmut. Warriors and Worthies: Arms and Armor through the Middle Ages. NY: Atheneum, 1971.

Barbara Bassett is a museum educator in the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). Carol Losos, formerly with PMA, is now manager of school and teacher programs at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:late medieval armor art lesson; includes related material
Author:Bassett, Barbara
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Previous Article:Filippino Lippi.
Next Article:Making the connection: children's books and the visual arts.

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