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Major exhibition on medieval armor set to begin at Toledo Museum of Art

The Toledo Museum of Art will soon begin to showcase some of the most exceptional European arms and armor in existence. The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum, will run from November 6th to February 27, 2022.

The new exhibition explores armor made for the battlefield, tournaments and ceremonies, highlighting armor’s practical function and its cultural role as a symbol of personal identity, social prestige and the values of a heroic past. More than 80 works, which come from one of the most important and largest American-based collections, will focus on the development and history of the classic knightly suit of plate armor, which was used from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s, as well as how armor has been used in various forms around the globe, from antiquity to the modern era.

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“There are few opportunities for a museum in the United States to exhibit European arms and armor, and the Toledo Museum of Art looks forward to bringing this exceptional group of objects from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum to our community,” said Diane Wright, one of the co-curators of the exhibition.“With outstanding examples extending from the warriors of ancient Greek legends to the knights of the Middle Ages, this exhibition offers a tremendous opportunity for visitors to take a step back in time and explore the expert craftsmanship and many uses of some of the most significant arms and armor still in existence.”

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

The comprehensive exhibition narrates the story of how armor evolved, how it was constructed and how it has impacted our cultural memory. The Age of Armor begins by inviting viewers to trace the progressive use of metals such as bronze, iron and steel for armor and weapons from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece and the time of the legendary Trojan War, when the increased importance of the foot-soldier coupled with the emergence of democracy.

The exhibition continues into the Middle Ages, when knights with expensive iron coats of mail, as well as swords, lances and horses came to dominate the battlefield. For better protection, knights were soon to be covered from head to toe in suits of plate armor ultimately generating the popular and nostalgic image of the chivalrous knight in shining armor. Armorers transformed steel plates into elaborate and refined versions of civilian clothing as well as fantastical, highly decorated fashion statements. At the same time, however, armor began to lose ground against firearms.

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Helmet in the form of a Sea Conch Shell, 1618, Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa (Japanese, 1600s), iron with traces of lacquer and textiles, The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.89.1.

The exhibition also examines the complex and specialized craft of armor-making and decorating, one of the most industrialized and innovative processes of its day. In addition to objects from Europe, the Higgins Collection holds examples of armor from around the world. Armor from Asia, Africa and the Indian subcontinent will be on display to connect and contrast with their European counterparts. The Age of Armor concludes with the decline of armor’s utility and its eventual revival in the modern era, as it continues to exert a powerful hold over our imaginations and as collectibles.

Among the numerous object highlights are a bronze Corinthian helmet from 600-500 B.C., Italian and Gothic-style German infantry breastplates from the late 1400s; stylish steel “Maximilian” field armor from about 1525-30; the left gauntlet for Prince (later King) Philip of Spain’s 1549-50 suit of armor known as the Flowers Garniture; a three-quarter field armor probably made for Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke in the 1560s; a 16th-century German mail coat that was exported to the Ottoman Empire and then northern Africa where it was lengthened for better leg protection; muskets and pistols from the 1600s; a flamboyant late feudal Japanese helmet in the form of a sea conch shell dating to 1618; and a russeted steel and gold helmet with mail neck-guard from 19th-century Sudan.

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

“The Age of Armor will be the first major exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art to celebrate the industry and artistry of the armorer’s craft from antiquity to the advent of the modern age,” says  Sophie Ong, the Museum’s Hirsch curatorial fellow. “We are honored to share the extraordinary arms and armor from the Higgins Armory Collection with our audiences in Toledo and spotlight armor’s pivotal function in social and political life, in addition to its martial role.”

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To learn more about this exhibition, please visit the Toledo Museum of Art website.

Top Image: Field Armor from a Garniture, about 1595, Pompeo della Cesa (Milan, about 1537–1610), steel, iron, brass, gold, silver, leather and fabric, The John Woodman Higgins Collection, 2014.112.

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