The Last Knight

The Art and Armor of Roman Emperor Maximilian I

Maximilan ! conquers the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since the beginning of time man has found it necessary to wage war on other men. The reasons may change over the centuries; whereas once men fought over relatively trivial matters like power and land, religion and economics, with the modern world comes modern understanding. We’re more educated now, more enlightened. And so today the conflicts are more about substantial matters. Today we fight for reasons we can understand, reasons such as power and land, religion and economics. (Ok, so perhaps things haven’t changed all that much.) But regardless of the reasoning, no one wants to go into battle unprotected. The oldest known western armor dates back to about 1400 B.C. As weapons advanced, so did the need to protect one’s armies from those weapons. Mail (also known as chainmail), was made of interlocking iron rings and came about somewhere around 500 B.C. The problem was that as time went on, armies grew. Making iron armor for all these soldiers required labor. And labor was expensive, especially after the Black Death wiped out approximately 200 million people in Eurasia. Thus, plate armor was created, which was cheaper and easier to make than its iron counterpart. Kings and queens, emperors and rulers fixated on armor as a way to win on the battlefield. But perhaps no one person elevated armor to such an art form as Maximilian I.

Maximilian I was born in 1459, in Austria, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Charles the Bold was Frederick’s chief political opponent and rather than try to defeat him on the field of battle, Frederick chose another route, quite common for the time. He suggested a marriage between his son Maximilian and Charles the Bold’s daughter, Mary of Burgudy. In 1477 they were wed. This marriage worked well for both parties for along with Mary’s hand, Maximilian also received the lands she owned, lands which would have been difficult, if not impossible for her to keep had she stayed unmarried. This territory included what we now know as The Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium and parts of France. Unfortunately, Mary dies young, from a riding accident, and this leaves Maximilian in a quandary. Because so much of his wealth came from Mary many of his subjects believed that it was Maximilian’s son, not he, who was the rightful heir. Pressed against the wall, Maximilian decided that his only way out was to show his rivals, and his allies, that he was worthy of the throne. He did this by commissioning the finest armor in the land, and wearing it boldly, to give the illusion not just of power and command, but also enormous wealth. This last part was a lie, but the trick worked. Sometimes what is most important about being a leader is that people think of you as a leader and adorned with his new state of the art armor, Maximilian made an inspirational figure head, thus securing his lands and titles.

Maximilian was not the type of leader who would just sit back and let others do the fighting; he used his armor in battle and in tournaments and almost always came out the victor. Because of his love of jousting and his obsession with armor he was dubbed ‘The Last Knight’.

The armor had another use as well. Whenever Maximilian needed a favor or wanted to make a good impression, he would present the armor as a gift. Since Maximilian commissioned the armor from only the top European craftsmen it was always accepted gratefully.

“The Last Knight will show how Maximilian, an ambitious European ruler at a turning point in the history of the world, used armor to serve his personal and dynastic aspirations and influence the politics of the time,” said Max Hollein, Director of The Met. “This exhibition will also reveal how the emperor used all of the forces at hand—power, prestige, and, most
importantly, art and armor—to forge a heroic image and
everlasting legacy.”

Maximilian I was Roman Emperor from 1493 – 1519. The first major exhibition to focus on the critical role that armor played in the life of Maximilian I will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 7, 2019. Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Maximilian’s death, The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I will feature over 180 objects selected from some 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. The armor will be complemented by drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, stained glass, tapestry, toys, and weapons. Walking into the exhibit one gets the feeling of being in another time; a more violent one perhaps but one which had its beauty as well.

All of the pieces in the exhibit are on loan from Austria and as one official quipped, ‘It will show the world that Austria is not just ‘The Sound of Music’ but also a little bit ‘Games of Thrones’.

(All photos by T. Sportiello)

Go to The Met Website for additional information

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