Iron Men: Fashion in Steel (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) 26 March – 26 June [Exhibition review]

Vienna usually spoils visitors with an interest in arms and armour with the Hofjagd und Rustkammer housing one of the best collections of its kind. However, the ‘Iron Men’ exhibition curated by Stefan Krause elevates this experience and offers a unique educational trip on the subject of armour that mainly spans from the 15th to the 16th century. A combination of harnesses, armour parts and art lead the visitor on an amazing journey.

The field armour from the Eagle Garniture of Archduke Ferndinand II by Jorg Seusenhofer makes a stunning first impression on visitors.

The aim of the exhibition is to present the many functions and contexts of armour: a tool for war, a staggering display of power, a diplomatic gift, an inimitable fashion statement and a unique manner in preserving memory. Visitors will be able to see some of the best examples of field and tournament armour made for some of the most renowned princes of their time, armour designed for children and funerary purposes. Armour is discussed as a method of constructing identities, expressing masculinity and martial prowess. The often-overlooked subject of women in martial culture and in relationship to armour is also presented. The owners of armour, with their bodies imprinted in steel, are first presented as larger than life humans, then as everyday people that could afford unique carapaces that served multiple functions and besides power and wealth also often possessed a sense of humour, style, and an interest to the aesthetically pleasing. These qualities shift historical figures from two-dimensional beings to being somewhat relatable. Since fashion is often at the forefront the decorative methods of armour are explored in depth. The use of fabric as a layer underneath or over armour is demonstrated through amazing extant examples, as well as the use of precious metals and stones. The exhibition ends with past reimaginations of armour in previous centuries both as objects as well as in art, demonstrating how as objects they always spurred interest. Armour is presented as a method of interpreting intercultural barriers or a glorified past with examples of armour alla turca and all’antica.

Whereas the strongest part of the exhibition is unquestionably some of the most impressive examples of armour surviving, the texts accompanying are masterfully written and edited to complement the content of the various rooms. The precision, sensitivity and scholarly meticulousness is balanced with simplicity without dumbing down the content -a sin that many modern museums often commit- and sets the standard for exhibitions on the field of arms and armour. Without relying on the overused crutches of modern pop-culture or the conservative displays of previous decades ‘Iron Men’ shatters many of the norms that armour is usually presented in similar exhibitions, captivates the attention of the visitor, and invites them to imagine and learn.

The ‘Iron Men’ exhibition truly raised the bar regarding the presentation of armour both as an object as well as conceptual ideas. It is engaging, thoughtful and often reinvents how the subject is framed and presented, rendering it a useful educational experience for the general audience as well as for specialised scholars. An excellent catalogue was produced for the purposes of the exhibition covering all objects in it as well as featuring numerous essays on various topics related to armour.

Crossbow, terror and beauty: an exhibition in Berlin and its catalogue (20.09.19-08.03.20)

Before most of the early art collections, the first ‘civic’ or territorial museums were the arsenals, specialised storage buildings designed to keep, maintain and display arms and armour, as well as other objects that were seen fit to be stored there. It is no surprise to see that many arsenals eventually lost their military functions and became museums. The German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is located in the former Zeughaus (arsenal) of the Brandenburg/Prussian army in Berlin, not far away from the brand new Humboldt-Forum – the museum designed to reflect the former castle of Berlin. But it is in an adjacent contemporary building, designed by the architect I.M. Pei, that the temporary exhibition “Die Armbrust – Schrecken und Schönheit / The Crossbow: Terror and Beauty” is displayed from September 20, 2019 until March 8, 2020.

The exhibition was initiated by Sven Lüken, who leads the department for military collections of the German Historical Museum. The motivation was the scientific description of objects from the museum that can be connected to the crossbow. Whereas the catalogue contains objects exclusively from the collections of the museum, the exhibition has on display, besides items of the German Historical Museum, dozens of objects from other museums or libraries (Heidelberg, Regensburg, Berlin). A visit to the exhibition is recommended particularly because of this pluralism of its displayed material culture.

Insight into the arms and armour collection of the DHM by Sven Lüken, presenting crossbows, windlasses and bolts. Youtube channel of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, September 2019.

The catalogue’s introduction by Raphael Gross and the first essay by Fritz Backhaus, respectively the director and the collection’s department director of the museum, address the paradox of the museum’s ambition – to confront Germany’s past with a critical and enlightened mind and avoid chauvinistic and nationalistic expressions – and the museum’s belongings, since at its core were arms and armour from the former Prussian Arsenal and the German Democratic Republic’s national Historical Museum. Dealing with the crossbow is nonetheless seen as a convenient way to address an exhibition of deadly weapons, and altogether question the point of these collections in a society that rejects traditional martial and violence-glorifying values attributed to them. Sven Lüken addresses the question of the collection’s provenance and history. Whereas most objects are most likely the remnants of the collections of Brandenburg castle storehouses, especially from Berlin, others found their way to the museum during the 19th century, especially with the ‘Blücher’ plunder (objects seized in Paris in 1815 that had been themselves taken by French troops in Germany or Austria) or the acquisitions of the Prussian prince Carl during the 1820’s. During the Second World War, the collections were displaced and partially seized and transferred to the USSR as war compensations: the lost (but often not destroyed) objects and artisan marks are included in the catalogue (p. 314-318 and 319-321). It is striking, though, that (unlike the windlasses) the attribution of crossbow to specific artisans or even to production centres is still uncertain, although most of them are believed to have been made in Southern Germany (Augsburg or Nuremberg). The crossbow selected for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, which may be a gift from the Southern German counts of Zollern, was however identified as the work of a member of the Kadus family which was active in different cities around Lake of Constance (one of them settled in Basel during the 1580s).

The exhibition displays several crossbows from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, although the majority of them are early modern objects. Besides the crossbows, which were carefully restored, we can see paveses, bolts (some of them are archaeological founds from the site of a failed Hussite attack on Bernau in 1432), bolt boxes and quivers, windlasses, and a very rare spanning bank. The detailed and state-of-the-art catalogue (93 objects, p. 113-311) made by Jens Sensfelder, a technical expert, addresses also the question of the technical evolution of the crossbow and compares the objects with other collections. Jens Sensfelder is also the editor of a crossbow-related review, the Jahrblatt der Interessengemeinschaft Historische Armbrust.

Many videos and figures explaining the delicate mechanisms or the crossbows are also on display in the exhibition, as well as shooting videos (one of them re-enacting the William Tell apple shooting).
Since most of the crossbows of the museum had no direct military function, the curators saw fit to put the focus on the symbolic and martial dimensions of the crossbow, which could be seen as an erotic symbol (cf. Jacob de Gheyn) or as a memento mori. The iconographic details (hunting, classical, or Biblical scenes) are wonderfully depicted and compared in Brigitte Reineke’s contribution to the catalogue.

The crossbow remained during the early modern period a weapon for hunting and, especially, a tool for target practice, which explains the focus on shooting contests [1] , deploying not only beautiful festival books by Lienhart Flexel or Ulrich Ertel from the Stuttgart festival of 1560, but also the series of engravings of the festival of Regensburg (1586) by Peter Opel, which was himself a firearm stock-maker. It also features some objects related to shooting competitions, such as letters of invitation (Landshut, 1549 and Regensburg, 1586), the crown given after the Nuremberg contest of 1579 to the Regensburg marksmen, and the stick of the target indicator. The last part of the exhibition addresses the famous William Tell myth, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries with pocket-theatre figures, photographs and postcards.

The temporary exhibition, which could have also emphasised the revival of the crossbow in popular culture, is a satisfying achievement. It certainly raises the question of whether the collection of early modern firearms from the German Historical Museum will benefit from the same exposure one day, showing that a contextualised exhibition about martial cultures is possible.

[1] The author of this review has researched the dynamics of shooting festivals in (mostly Southern) Germany and Switzerland as a tool for civic and aristocratic diplomacy: Jean-Dominique Delle Luche, Sportliches Engagement und städtischer Wettbewerb : Schützenfeste als Ausdruck der Konkurrenz im Heiligen Römischen Reich, in Matthias Schnettger, Julia Schmidt-Funke (dir.), Neue Stadtgeschichte(n). Die Reichsstadt Frankfurt im Vergleich, Bielefeld, transcript, 2018, p. 369-398; Une association d’intérêt public : les sociétés d’arbalétriers et arquebusiers dans les villes du Saint-Empire (XVe-XVIe siècles), in Olivier Richard, Gabriel Zeilinger (dir.), La participation politique dans les villes du Rhin supérieur à la fin du Moyen Âge/Politische Partizipation in spätmittelalterlichen Städten am Oberrhein, Berlin, Schmidt (Studien des Frankreich-Zentrums der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, 26), 2017, p. 241-277 ; Die Schießregister und die Entwicklung der regionalen sportlichen Netzwerke der Stadt Nördlingen (1464–1585), in Jahrbuch des Historischen Vereins für Nördlingen und das Ries, vol. 35, 2017, p. 131-170.

Acknowledgment: the author of this review has collaborated with the exhibition organisers and presented his research during a public conference in October 2019. His PhD dissertation, which was written in 2015 at the EHESS (Paris), addressed the topic of shooting ‘guilds’ and festivals in the Holy Roman Empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Review of the exhibition The Last Knight (October 7, 2019 – January 5, 2020, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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”.[1] 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: Foot combat armour of Maximilian I, before 1508. KHM, Vienna. © Metropolitan Museum, NY.

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.

Fig. 3: The Weisskunig (Maximilian) devising with the armourers in the workshop. Engraving from The Weisskunig (compiled by Marx Treitzsaurwein), 1514-16. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Katherine E. Bullard Fund. © Metropolitan Museum, NY. The original woodblock is also on display

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.

Fig. 4: Letter from Maximilian I to Philip I Regarding the Brussels Armorer Pieter Wambaix, April 1496. Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna.
© Metropolitan Museum, NY.

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).

Fig. 5: Letter from Emperor Maximilian I to the Magistrate of Strasbourg May 20, 1512. Archives de la Ville et de l’Eurométropole, Strasbourg, France.
© Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Fig. 6: Map of Maximilian’s Armourers. Exhibition map, Pierre Terjanian © Metropolitan Museum, NY.

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).
Fig. 7: Epitaph of Hans Seusenhofer and Apollonia Forcheimer, designed by Veit Arnberger, 1555. Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Austria, Ältere Kunstgeschichtliche Sammlungen.
© Metropolitan Museum, NY.

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.

[1] 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.

Review of the exhibition Faszination Schwert (13.10.2018-28.04.2019), Stuttgart

The #MartCult research team went to visit the temporary exhibition Faszination Schwert swords at the Landesmuseum Württemberg. This ambitious exhibition (3500 objects on 1000m2) takes place in the Altes Schloss, the re-built princely residence of the dukes of Baden-Württemberg. The aim of the exhibition is to display sword culture in Europe from 17th c. BC up until the Future, from the Bronze Age to the fictive world of Star Wars. The exhibition relies on the important collections of the Landesmuseum of antique and Celtic swords on the one hand, the remains of the once highly praised armoury of the counts (later dukes) of Württemberg. A small number of medieval pieces complement these two focuses of the presentation. Nonetheless the curators of the exhibition managed to please even medievalists and to provoke relevant reflections, which go beyond classical historical periodisation. Moreover, the exhibition’s discourses and installations are well structured and displayed in innovative ways through the different spaces, with a convincing scenography. It includes interactive installations, as well as audio-visual material, without casting shadow on the impressive number of significant objects.

View of room 3: The Sword as a Symbol
“Faszination Schwert” Special exhibition of the Landesmuseums Württemberg in Stuttgart 13.10.2018 – 28.4.2019.
© Landesmuseum Württemberg, Hendrik Zwietasch.

The first space concentrates on sword manufacture and includes a video of an archaeological experiment for casting a bronze sword. It also sports didactic displays about sword components and tools used for its production. Among the different displays, my favourite was the one about the ulfberht swords with a map showing their origins and the distribution of both “originals” and counterfeits with increasingly varied names.

The second space is about typology, with a clever installation allowing to understand the main sword types appearing through history with representative examples in individual cases, associated with iconographical representations. It includes the now must-have installation allowing the visitor to grab a sword replica (and guess at its weight) and a video about Historical European Martial Arts practitioners demonstrating late Medieval art of fighting (featuring the Gladiatores).

The third space is about the warriors and their swords. In the centre, one of the masterpieces of the exhibition is on display, the sword of duke Eberhard im Bart, with its beautifully decorated scabbard (achieved in 1495). The room also includes the oldest known representation of sword fighters or dancers (Hochdorf, 6th c. BC). Next to the display about chivalric orders, you can take your picture while being knighted by your friends – in the way the English Queen has been doing for more than six decades.

The sword and scabbard of duke Eberhard im Bart, 1495, private loan.
“Faszination Schwert” Special exhibition of the Landesmuseums Württemberg in Stuttgart 13.10.2018 – 28.4.2019.
© Landesmuseum Württemberg, Hendrik Zwietasch.

The fourth space is about devotional practices, sporting among others the enigmatic bronze and iron age river finds. Interesting pieces with inscriptions and other engravings allude to battle magic, and, of course, Christian rites. A challenging installation about Christian saints whose attributes are swords tested our expertise.

Statue of Holy Katharina, around 1450.
“Faszination Schwert” Special exhibition of the Landesmuseums Württemberg in Stuttgart 13.10.2018 – 28.4.2019.
© Landesmuseum Württemberg, Hendrik Zwietasch.

An interlude between spaces firmly reminds the visitors that swords inflict often deadly damage on the human body. Split skulls, representations of wounds, as well as voice-overs reading descriptions of the consequence of sword use from various sources underline this truth often forgotten when dealing with “fascinating” swords. It leads the visitor to the next space about the propagandistic uses of the sword. It presents, among other things, items representing the confessional propaganda of the Thirty Years war, the U.N. ‘s use of the image of the broken sword, Bismarck as unifier of Germany, and the impressive use of the figure of smith Wieland of the Nibelungen song by national socialist propaganda.

First World War Medal,
“Faszination Schwert” Special exhibition of the
Landesmuseums Württemberg in Stuttgart
13.10.2018 – 28.4.2019.
© Landesmuseum Württemberg, Bildarchiv.

The last two spaces deal with swords and heroes. First through historical narratives and legendary figures, then through movies and gaming cultures, and lastly through different modern activities re-enacting swordplay. A room allows you to step into a recent Czech game and to embody the hero through a device capturing your sword fighting movements while translating it on screen. The large screen in the middle displays fighting scenes from well known movies in front of different cases that display the swords of these movies (or their copies) and posters, including, of course, Star Wars’ iconic light sabre. A large case then displays several sword replicas used for modern sword fighting, including re-enactment, stage fencing and Historical European Martial Arts, supported by interviews and images allowing to learn different perspectives from practitioners. It ends with the allegedly most famous of all famous swords: Excalibur – who will pull it out of the stone and be the once and future king?

I have seen, or collaborated with many large international exhibitions about swords since 2011. This exhibition manages to reach a very high level with innovative and interactive spaces, encompassing a very broad and complete history of the multi-faceted sword cultures. Our research project about martial culture returns enlightened by the exhibition, with thought-provoking ideas for our own exhibition project in 2021-2022.

Daniel Jaquet


We thank Dr. Matthias Ohm, one of the curators of the exhibition, for having spent time for us and guided us through the exhibition. Interested readers could turn to the special issue 14 of the journal AiD (Archäologie in Deutschland), which plays the role of the accompanying exhibition catalogue, with 12 scientific contributions and several images from the exhibition itself.


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