Head to the upper galleries of the Frist Art Museum and you’ll come face to face with a 500-year-old knight in shining armor.
OK, so he’s not a real knight. The armor, however, is the real deal. It was made between 1500 and 1510 AD and belonged to a German knight. And true to his life of long ago, he still shines.
Made of steel, leather and fabric, the costume is a stunning introduction to Frist’s “knights in armor”, on view until October 10. With over 100 superbly crafted and preserved objects, such as full armor and a range of helmets, mounted equestrian figures, paintings and weapons, the exhibition brings to life the functional and artistic aspects of European chivalry in the Renaissance, when the art of arms and armor was at its peak.
“These are masterpieces,” said Frist Art Museum Senior Curator Trinita Kennedy. “They are some of the most expensive and artistic armor ever made.”
“Knights in Armour” begins in 1500 AD, when plate armor had all but replaced the chain mail armor worn by knights throughout the Middle Ages. The development of plate armor not only offered better protection, but also more opportunities for aesthetic innovation and customization.
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“These coins were for wealthy elite knights,” Kennedy said. “They could afford to order custom armor fitted to their body and decorated with figures, patterns or inscriptions they liked.”
Kennedy worked closely with the exhibit designer to ensure there was something exciting for visitors to see at every turn. Highlights include life-size replicas of knights riding armored horses. There’s a gallery dedicated to jousting and tournaments – the simulated battles performed by knights for viewers – and another gallery focuses on iconic weapons, such as polearms, maces, crossbows and, well, sure, the swords. There are even examples of ceremonial armor made for children.
Combined with silk and other luxury fabrics, a Renaissance knight’s armor was as much defensive protection as a matter of “style and fashion for men,” Kennedy said.
“The fashion for armor often followed the textile designs and civilian dress of the time. The styles changed often and were different in various parts of Europe.
Unlike the camouflage fatigues worn by soldiers today, a knight’s armor was emblematic of his status and power. It was meant to get your attention.
“In many ways the armor was the Renaissance version of a Ferrari or a Lamborghini,” Kennedy added. “It was very high-tech and made to shine in the sun and candlelight. The peasants would have worn clothes made of drab, undyed wool, so when a knight rode through town on horseback it would have been a sight very impressive.
The wow effect of armor design was further amplified by what it represented. Knights were the legendary “superheroes” of their time, and this reputation was reinforced if not stretched by popular romance literature in medieval and Renaissance times.
“Chivalry and its code of chivalry was definitely romanticized. That’s how they sold the job,” Kennedy said. “It was a very dangerous occupation that looked very exciting, with an emphasis on adventure and chivalry.”
Even after the development of firearms and other weapons made armor obsolete, the romance of knights and chivalric culture persisted.
All the pieces in the exhibition, for example, come from the magnificent Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy, which houses an extraordinary collection of weapons and armor amassed by Frederick Stibbert (1838-1906) in the 19th century. Stibbert was an avid and eclectic art collector with a particular interest in Renaissance armor from around the world, Kennedy said.
“In the 1850s he collected around 50,000 works of art and had an eye for artistic armor. The museum still has the receipts for his purchases, and it is said that he bought art almost every day of his life.
Kennedy said Stibbert would even order armor for himself and wear it to parties. His choice of costumes reflected his passion as well as the broader context of the Gothic Revival, a period of renewed interest in medieval and Renaissance art and culture that emerged in the 19th century.
To this day, knights in one form or another continue to appear in books, movies, and video games – “Star Wars” and superhero movies particularly come to mind.
“Knights are old but feel new at the same time,” Kennedy said. “They have continued to resonate with people of all ages through time.”
“Knights in Armor” offers many activities for adults and children, including bonus programming aimed at making the exhibition a fun and dynamic experience for everyone. From movies and musical performances to special tours, multi-sensory exploration stations and knight-themed activities at Martin ArtQuest, there’s plenty to see and do before this show ends.
If you are going to
“Knights in Armor”
When: Until October 10
Where: First Art Museum, 919 Broadway in Nashville
Hours: 10am-5.30pm Monday, 10am-8pm Thursday; 10am-5.30pm Friday and Saturday, 1pm-5.30pm Sunday