The Age of Armor

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ Newest Exhibition from The Higgins Armory Collection at The Worcester Art Museum

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ newest exhibition, “The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum,” developed from a single question:

 Kulah Khud (helmet), 1600s with later modifications, Northern Indian, iron, brass, silver and gold, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.88. 

The image of the knight
in shining armor is familiar to us from fairy tales, films, and computer games, but what was the reality behind the myth?

Jeffrey Forgeng, the Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Worcester, Massachusetts, used the rich collections in his care as a starting point. Once a standalone museum and now part of WAM, the Higgins Collection contains the second largest holdings of arms and armor in the United States. The exhibition at the Cummer Museum, on display until January 22, 2023, uses nearly 100 objects to uncover the technical, practical, cultural, and aesthetic functions of these historical materials.

Humans have used various materials for protection and fighting throughout history. Dating to the Bronze Age (2000 BCE – 500 BCE), the oldest objects in the exhibition are from places as disparate as ancient Greece, Egypt, and central Europe. They show how access to offensive and defensive items shifted from strictly aristocratic warriors to more mass-produced items for legions of soldiers. During the medieval era (500 – 1300 AD), protection was offered by linking individual welded rings of metal into loose outerwear called mail. While knights in full plate armor are probably among the most popular images in our collective imagination, they only existed for a relatively short period of time, just from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s. The bulk of objects in this exhibition, however, represent the styles and trends of this period. 

Half-Armor for a Member of the Papal Guard, 1570–90, Northern Italian, perhaps Brescia, blued and engraved steel with gilding, brass, modern leather and velvet, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1137. Images © 2020 Worcester Art Museum, all rights reserved.

One of the most visually striking works visitors will see is a full suit of so-called “Maximilian armor” (circa 1525), named for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who served in that role 1508 – 1519. Suits of armor became more decorative and elaborate as their protective effectiveness became more limited because of the rise of firearms. Forgeng explains:

“The fully armored knight astride his warhorse was part tank, part fashionista, part action-hero. His suit of armor was carefully crafted to provide maximum protection while moving naturally with the body to allow him to use his skills to the utmost. 

“Maximilian” Field Armor, about 1525–1530, Southern German, steel, iron, and leather with modern restorations, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.111. 

But the knight was also a courtier whose armor was an integral part of his stylish wardrobe. The rounded shaping and rippled surface of this armor have some protective qualities, but more importantly they imitate the pleated fabric of a gentleman’s civilian clothing. The smooth armor on the lower leg imitates his silk stockings, and the broad-toed sabatons echo the shape of fashionable men’s shoes.

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Author: Arbus

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