The Art of Combat

The Renaissance of Etching

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 23, 2019–January 20, 2020; and the Albertina Museum, Vienna, February 12–May 10, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition by Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, and others
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 308 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Field armor of Maximilian I; made by Lorenz Helmschmid, circa 1480
Private Collection/Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Field armor of Maximilian I; made by Lorenz Helmschmid, circa 1480

For the German artists of the Renaissance, armor and weaponry held an extraordinary allure. One thinks of the great care lavished on armor in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil, which Dürer noted was based on the equipment of the German light cavalry of the day. He also made designs for the ornamentation of armor, three of which survive. And he made an etching featuring an elaborate piece of artillery in a landscape.

One thinks of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s panel painting of Saint Maurice in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was included in its recent exhibition “The Last Knight.” The black saint wears a silver armor (one refers to “an armor” or “a silver armor,” rather than to a “suit of armor”), which appears to have been commissioned by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 until his death in 1519. It is magnificently gilded and encrusted with jewels, and it passed from imperial possession into a collection of reliquaries, where it was fitted out with an African head to represent the Roman legionary and Christian martyr—a life-size relic, illuminated in its sanctuary, the catalog of the exhibition tells us, by “thirteen main lamps and seven subsidiary ones.” This was in Magdeburg, where Saint Maurice was revered. But the silver armor was too valuable to survive very long; in 1541 it was melted down and its gems repurposed. Cranach’s depiction of it is suggestively correct in technical details, indicating that the painter had studied the armor close up.

One had to get such things right. Working for patrons and an audience who shared this armor obsession, the artist had to depict an object that made sense, just as the armorer had to create an armor that made sense. It had to fit the patron or the intended recipient (armor was often commissioned as a magnificent gift). And it had to work. Everything depended on the smoothly functioning design. But quite how the measurements and patterns for such armors were taken and transmitted from city to city seems not to be known.

If today you come across, say, a helmet that, because of some structural flaw, could never have functioned as a helmet, it is probably a relic of the nineteenth-century medieval armor revival—a helmet designed for display in some mock-baronial hall. A genuine piece of armor is an expression first and foremost of function, and only secondly of style. It should function like a space suit.

People get the idea that armor was never practical. It was far too heavy. You had to be raised onto your horse by a winch, and so forth. But this seems to be a popular misunderstanding, deriving from the declining…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.