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The Age of Armor: from the Higgins Armory Musuem. (Learning from Exhibitions).

Armor is as old as human civilization itself, as it has taken many forms and served several purposes. From a practical and defensive point of view, armor provided protection in battle at times when warfare was common and combat was fought hand-to-hand.

On the other hand, over time, armor provided a sense of personal identity and loyalty, and its wearer enjoyed a special level of social, and even heroic, prestige. As such, armor developed in two directions--that of a functional, battle-ready, protective wear, often heavy, cumbersome and unadorned; and the alternate armor made for presentation purposes, parades and pageantry.

Although armor can be associated with several eras of history, both in the East and West, the most common association is usually made with the armor of the medieval and Renaissance periods. The exhibition, The Age of Armor, draws on the large and rich collection of the Higgins Armory Museum, the only such institution in the United States dedicated to bringing these artifacts to audiences who have little opportunity to see them.

This exhibition provides an overview of the history of personal armor, illustrates its uses, and examines the skills needed to shape and decorate the metal into functional or fashionable suits of armor. Overall, the exhibition includes nearly 70 unique armor objects and artifacts, ranging from an impressive sword to full sets of body armor for a man and his steed.

Armor can be viewed from multiple perspectives--as fashion, as defensive material, as hollow sculpture, or as evidence of metallurgy and the history of an industry. The many-sided interests--art, history, technical and military--have resulted in a wide and diverse audience that is sure to be satisfied with the variety and quality of this exhibition.

While the quality and strength of the armor was based largely on the origin of the metal itself--and the textural embellishments were dependent on the skill of local artisans--the engineering and assembly of a suit of armor required enormous knowledge, skill and invention. A suit required the best steel--strong, light, and beautiful--to be conformed to an individual's body and built with over 200 unique-sized metal plates individually fashioned with sliding rivets to allow for the maximum and most comfortable physical movement.

Two different processes achieved etched designs in armor. One method involved coating the surface of the metal with wax or another protective layer. The desired design was then scratched through the protective coating with a sharp point. Acid would then permanently "etch" the design onto the exposed surface of the metal. Another method, the opposite procedure, was to place a protective surface over the design and etch away the background.

The primary centers for the creation of armor were Milan, Italy, and Augsburg, Germany, although fine and functional armor was produced elsewhere throughout the continent and beyond. Salesmen and fitters from large armor establishments were sent to the courts of Europe to solicit orders for suits of armor as well as all the accessories that would accompany the well-dressed knight. Such items included, but were not limited to, metal tools and weapons.

The full-service armorer could also provide the soft goods--plumes, scarves, velours, velvets and other materials--that would complete the knight's attire or event setting. When armor went out of fashion, largely due to the invention of gunpowder and firearms, the salesmen (called "Milaners") continued to sell their soft goods, which eventually came to be known as "millinery."

Today's ever-popular image of a "knight in shining armor" is actually based on a type of armor from the late 16th century, a time when the fully armored horseman was disappearing from the battlefield. With the introduction of firearms, soldiers were beginning to shed elements of their armor on campaign, usually beginning with the armor for their arms and legs. By this method they lost weight and gained mobility.

Torso and head armor were eventually made heavier to resist the impact of musket fire; however, as firearms quickly became more powerful, the increased weight of effective armor was simply too burdensome to wear. By 1700, armor was abandoned for military use but continued to be popular for ceremonial purposes.

The Age of Armor is organized from the collections of the Higgins Armory Museum and circulated by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services. For information on this and other Smith Kramer exhibitions, including the itineraries on many exhibitions, visit:


Nov. 30, 2003-Feb. 8, 2004 Museum of Arts and Sciences Daytona Beach, Fla.

March 4-May 16, 2004 The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock

June 13-Aug. 22, 2004 Sunrise Museum, Charleston, W.V.

Sept. 19-Dec. 5, 2004 Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art

Jan. 2-March 13, 2005 Dane G. Hansen Memorial Museum Logan, Kan.

April 10-Sept. 25, 2005 Dennos Museum Center N.W. Michigan College, Traverse City

Oct. 23, 2005-Jan. 1, 2006 Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art

Jan. 29-April 9, 2006 Evansville (Ind.) Museum of Arts & Sciences

May 7-July 16, 2006 The Haggin Museum, Stockton, Calif.

Aug. 13-Oct. 22, 2006 Muskegon (Mich.) Museum of Art

March 4-May 13, 2007 Frank H. McClung Museum University of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 10-Aug. 19, 2007 Huntsville (Ala.) Museum of Art

Sept. 16-Dec. 2, 2007 Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History Delray Beach, Fla.

Dec. 30, 2007-March 9, 2008 Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Key West, Fla.

April 6-June 15, 2008 Mesa (Ariz.) Southwest Museum

July 13-Sept. 21, 2008 Sloan Museum, Flint, Mich.

The rounded breastplate, channeled design and broad toes on this armor are characteristic of the "Maximilian" style of the 1500s, so named because of the Emperor's interest in devising new kinds of armor. The breastplate is gathered in at the waist to imitate the look of pleated clothing. The etched, textured decoration is a later addition. Like many armors, this one was embellished in the early 1800s to suit contemporary tastes and expectations. "Fico" was the name of one style of design for surface ornamentation.

According to curators, this suit begins to show signs of the decline of the armorer's craft--the shapes being less harmonious and the execution less precise.

Pauldrons would have been worn by a heavy cavalryman. The studding is a purely decorative elaboration of the rivets used to attach armor lames to each other.

Armor for people was moderately expensive; armor for a horse was a substantial status symbol. The decoration of these pieces may have actually matched an accompanying suit of armor for the rider.

By 1700, armor was largely out of use, but a specialist class of heavy cavalry, the cuirassier, continued to wear torso armor and a helmet. Such equipment continued to be used in the 1800s and can still be seen today, although only in ceremonial use. This helmet evokes Roman models as much as the medieval armor tradition.

Mark M. Johnson is Director of the Montgomery (Ala.) Museum of Fine Arts, and is a Contributing Editor for Arts & Activities.
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Title Annotation:art project
Author:Johnson, Mark M.
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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