This exhibition is not only a major international exhibition about arms and armour, it is also the fruit of years of scientific research spearheaded by Pierre Terjanian (head of the Arms and Armor Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). This can be appreciated through the vast array of objects presented in connection to original documents, paintings and sculptures on display, through the well written exhibition texts, but also through the exhibition catalogue that includes an essay presenting arms and armour as “the currency of power”. This essay puts forward the art of the armourers as a central concern of the life achievements of Maximilian I and emphasizes his use of printed media for self-promotion tool and political propaganda. This aspect is of particular interest to our research project and will be the main focus of this review.
Fig.1: Promotional videoclip for the exhibition © Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Specialised suits of armour
The armour proto-industry blossomed in the second half of the fifteenth century in Europe. By this time, major centres such as Milan or Innsbruck delivered and exported not only large amounts of either mass-produced defensive equipment (later called “munition armour”), but also highly specialised – and for that time still experimental – custom-made designs for princely armours. Over time, by adapting armour to new needs, new kinds of full suits of armour with specific characteristics were developed. At the basis of this developmend was field armour for military campaign, but specific assemblages were also produced for highly codified chivalric games, each with their own codified and particular set of rules. New techniques were also explored regarding aesthetic features and decoration, turning these exo-skeletons into anthropomorphic sculptures. These armours came with additional interchangeable pieces, that the owner could swap depending on the use. This is later called “garniture”, that is a series of defensive equipment from which the owner could form different suits of armour to fight on foot or on horseback for different types of chivalric games, as well as for field needs.
Fig. 2 shows an armour made for single combat on foot in the context of a tournament. It was made by Francesco da Merate for Maximilian I. The armour is decorated with inlaid gold pigment. It consists of fully enclosed leg and arm defences, and a tonlet, a specific protective item for fighting on foot with weapons such as pollaxes and two-handed swords, protecting the lower part of the body above the knees and below the waist. This armour does not allow riding a horse and is not suited for campaigning in the field.
On the hunt for armourers
In his essay, Pierre Terjanian demonstrates that the art of armour-making and designing was instrumental for the construction of Maximilian I’s identity and political image (fig.3). Maximilian made sure to choose the best experts to make the best armours, but also to secure access to key raw materials and places of production ideally located in order to allow optimal conditions for production.
A whole section of the exhibition is dedicated to Maximilian’s armourers. The spotlight is on technical innovations, masterpieces, production, and promotion. An eye-catching section is based on archival research. As armour-making was a very lucrative business, the towns’ authorities or princes were not keen on letting the masters go. The exhibition documents these and related topics very well by displaying a number of documents such as letters from Maximilian to town councils or princes (fig. 4 and 5).
Many armourers worked for Maximilian, both near the court armoury (Innsbruck), but also in other locations set up by the Emperor. A helpful map showing these locations and the names of the armourers known to have worked for Maximilian will support further research (fig. 6). Another interesting list presents noblemen that had received armour as a gift from the Emperor.
A focus on Seusenhofer family, ennobled master armourers
Different armourers’ paths can be grasped in the exhibition with interesting objects on display, including commemorative medals. Most fascinating is the presentation of some of the most beautiful suits of armour conserved to date (including masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, but also from most of the major collections of arms and armour in Europe).
The Seusenhofer family of armourers is well represented in the exhibition. They managed to receive the favour of the Emperor, something that was not always the case for other armourer workshops and families. Different objects and documents regarding the Seusenhofer family are on display:
- To put a price on their production, an invoice from Konrad Seusenhofer († 1517)
- To demonstrate the personal relationship the Emperor had with his armorer, a personal correspondance of Maximilian to Konrad Seusenhofer.
- To show the favour of Maximilian and the recognition for a lifetime work, the ennobling certificate of Hans Seusenhofer († 1555).
- And to outline the legacy of such masters, the epitaph of Hans Seusenhofer (fig. 7).
This major exhibition is a must-see, and its catalogue is a must-have. Among other topics, our research project is interested in how martial expertise (as a relevant part of martial culture) is developed, especially in urban contexts and from the perspective of town authorities. In this regard, design, use, production and market of (offensive and defensive) weapons’ are central concerns. The exhibition “The Last Knight” manages not only to put up a splendid show, it also transports the fruit of impressive scientific research based on archival documents and iconography. The exhibition is on display until January 5, 2020.
 Pierre Terjanian, “The Currency of Power: The central Place of Armor in the Ambitions and Life of Maximilian I”, in The Last Knight: The Art, Armor and Ambition of Maximilian I, ed. by Pierre Terjanian (New-York: Metropolitan Museum, 2019), pp. 17-37.
Acknowledgement: We thank the Metropolitan Museum for the permission to use the pictures, especially Pierre Terjanian and Chassica Kirchhoff.