Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Last Knight

Most of us celebrate our birthdays annually but they rarely go further than double digits and if they do, they rarely go above 100.  The Metropolitan Museum in New York has decided to celebrate the 500th birthday of Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519).  They have come up with a title for their exhibition that should entice young and old to visit, “The Last Knight”. The term in reference to Maximilian, however, was first used by 19th century Romantic writers. However, when I looked up “The Last Knight” online, I found a 2017 science fiction action film based on Transformers toys!  

One anecdote if I may: when I was still quite young, I fell in love with arms and armor. After I had been to see a movie about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,  my mother asked me how I liked the film about the “Rounds of the Night Table”! That became a family saying with many applications.

Maximilian I was born a minor Central European prince of the House of Habsburg.  He amassed territories over much of Europe and his grandson, Charles V, was to extend them even to the Americas. Maximillian worked his way up in the world thanks to marriage, diplomacy, inheritance and election, culminating in becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. He had a passion for the concept of the heroic knight, using the image to further his ambitions and desire for his and his family’s legacy.  

Curator of the exhibition, Pierre Terjanian, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge of the Department of Arms and Armor at The Met says that Maximilian’s goal in amassing this magnificent array of armor was to impress. He compares this to a modern public relations campaign. 

The exhibition includes 180 works of art from some 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.  It covers Maximian’s life and times with an accent on his commissions of armor.  It opens with the model of horse in a magnificent set of body armor, known as a bard. It was presented to Henry VIII, as one of Maximilian’s diplomatic gifts intended to curry favors with other rulers.   It was lent by the Royal Armories in Leeds and is fully documented as wrought by Guillem Margo and punched and engraved by Paul van Vrelant around 1505.

There are so many fascinating objects, many new to me, for instance, the Padded Coif for the Joust of Peace, Innsbruck, Austria, 1484, lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Imperial Armory.  It immobilized the contestant’s head inside a special massive helmet protecting it from the blow of a lance in the tournaments that Maximilian sponsored.   It was made for Archduke Sigismund of Tyrol, Maximilian’s great-uncle.

Here is another unusual object, a steel skirt, also made in Innsbruck, circa 1510-15 with an attribution to Conrad Seusenhofer.  It is from the Met’s own collection.  Having this additional safety measure, naturally, only came with luxury armor.

Among the many cool works in this show is a Mechanical Breastplate for variants of the Joust of War, thought up in Southern Germany circa 1480-1500.  It has settings for adjusting the force required to trigger the mechanism that released the shield.  I think I would leave it on the highest setting!

I am sure you have heard of the order of the Golden Fleece and you have seen it worn in a number of old master portraits.  This exhibition actually has one of the three known extant examples to survive from the Netherlands in the 16th Century.  This enameled and gold collar was lent by the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.  One reason there are so few around is that they were supposed be returned after the recipient’s death.  This one may have belonged to a childhood friend of Charles V.

The last objects in the show are a pair of steel Gauntlets belonging to Maximilian attributed to Lorenz Helmschmid of Augsburg, circa 1490 and  lent by the Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Real Armeria. They were brought to Spain by Charles V when he retired to a monastery as a memento of the grandfather he revered.  I don’t know if it was placement or lighting but if you gave me a choice of one object from the show.  These are what I would take with me!

I guess it is only fair to show you a likeness of Maximilian I in life and in death.  The first image was painted ca. 1525-30(?) in the workshop or by a follower of Albrecht Durer and lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It contrasts with the death portrait from The Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdnandeum in Innsbruck Austria. It is South German or Austrian, after 1519 but the artist is not known. This image is most unusual in that Maximilian is not shown in all his finery and symbols of power. It is assumed that Maximilian himself, who had presided over the plans for his memorial, requested that this portrait be made after his instructions had been followed, that his head be shaved and his teeth knocked out demonstrating him to have been a humble mortal.

The show ends with a quote from Maximilian which has not grown out of date. “He who makes no memory of himself during his lifetime will have none after his death and will be forgotten with the tolling of the final knell. Therefore, the money that I expend on perpetuating my memory will not be lost.”

I have concentrated on the armor which is the focus of this spectacular show but there are more paintings, plus prints and stained glass as well that you will have to see for yourselves.  “The Last Knight” runs until January 5, 2020. 

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