Philippe de Montebello in conversation with Pierre Terjanian, the curator of the exhibition “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I.
I'm Philippe de Montebello on location at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Now on view is the exhibition 'The Last Knight: The Art, Armor and Ambition of Maximilian I.'
It is the first major exhibition to focus on the central role that armor played in the life and very grand ambitions of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
A walk through the galleries reveals how he used armor to serve his personal and dynastic aspirations during the dawn of the Renaissance.
The most comprehensive loan exhibition of European arms and armor in decades, it brings together more than 180 objects.
These have been selected from 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.
The armors on view are quite sumptuous and highlight his patronage of the greatest European armorers of his age.
A self-promoter of the highest order, a ruthless leader and political mastermind, he used art and armor to forge a heroic image and eternal legacy.
The outstanding armors are shown together with drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture, stained glass, and a tapestry.
Also included is the complete series of 18 sandstone reliefs that Maximilian commissioned to decorate the façade of the celebrated Goldenes Dachl, his official residence in Innesbruck, known for its distinctive golden-tiled roof.
I had the opportunity of speaking with Pierre Terjanian, the curator of this truly remarkable exhibition.
Pierre, it's so nice of you to welcome us in this absolutely extraordinary exhibition.
I mean, astonishingly beautiful and at the same time, revealing of a whole world that is really not familiar today to most people.
So let's set the stage.
Who exactly is Maximillian the First?
Thank you Phillipe.
Maximillian the First is one of the European rulers that is well known in Europe as a colorful figure that ruled over many different parts of Europe, started his career in today's Netherlands and later became Holy Roman Emperor.
And as such was in charge of composite assemblage of states, mostly German speaking but not exclusively, resided in Austria.
He was at the hinge of the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, a man who lived in a period of transition and saw massive changes politically, but also scientifically and artistically.
What exactly did armor, great armor, mean at that time in the late 15th, early 16th century?
So armor is a protective garment made of typically of steel or iron.
It's worn in combat, but it's also the formal dress of the powerful men that are not part of the clergy at the time.
It's also an object that projects an image of perfection.
Like St. George is always represented in armor and the Archangel Michael.
There's something almost holy about the armor.
Wearing armor allows oneself to accomplish things that one may not dare to do without it.
It is also something you see as part of a performance.
And the performances are important to Maximilian because he needs to demonstrate that he has leadership qualities that will mobilize people around him, around his cause.
I presume if you were Maximilian, you, you hired, you commissioned absolutely the greatest armorers in Europe.
Where were they and for whom did they work?
Armor could only be had from very specific workshops and Maximilian arranged special relationship with these armorers, sometime exclusive arrangements.
So if you wanted an armor from those workshop, you had to be in Maximilian's good graces.
You need to be connected to him.
The armors are among those few objects from the period they were valuable because of how they're made rather than because their intrinsic value.
They're made of iron, nothing so valuable in the first place.
But the quality of the workmanship is everything.
And not unlike haute couture, armor has a sense of style, and endows a person wearing it with a presence.
So Maximilian was eclectic.
He had armor made wherever he fancied and he happened to have access to the best armors of the time.
Now, is this a little bit like going to the tailor?
Did he actually go to the armorer, be measured by the armorer?
How did that work for an emperor?
In general, the emperor summoned the armorers to come measure, measure him at home.
But he liked visiting with them.
He also liked telling them how the armor should be designed.
He had strong opinions on the matter and maybe that's a bit counter intuitive for head of state to be interested in such things.
But he thought that his ability to have wonderful armors for himself to appear in them, but also to give them to the people who were, um, in his entourage were one of the measures of his greatness.
As diplomatic gifts?
As diplomatic gifts, but also- As bribes, as favors?
As tokens of appreciation, as a token of appreciation.
So sometime even his usher or his personal secretary, got armors as gifts from him, as well as heads of state.
Henry VIII was one of the recipients.
This is an opportunity to speak about the horse that's right next to us.
Is it frequent that the horses themselves had armor, the shaffron for the head and all over, or was that an imperial privilege?
It's a matter of resources.
So let's say that the ones who can afford it would typically have armor for their horses.
The inexpensive kind was boiled leather armor.
But a solid metal horse armor was very expensive, very rare.
Typically they were smooth and simple.
This one is completely worked in relief.
That is a statement, a powerful statement.
And in its original state, this horse armor was actually completely covered in silver and in gold.
I gather Maximilian was very well known as being a great jouster.
Tell us a little bit about those armors and the, the meaning, conceivably symbolic meaning of having these exhibitions, these jousts.
So Maximilian had to prove himself to gain the support that he needed from the grandees of his lands, the Dukes, the counts, that was his true audience.
And to do so, he could do so in battle, but people tend to be distracted in combat.
And the tournament provided a different arena where there will be a wider range of people, more socially diverse, gender diverse, all of whom could witness his capabilities.
There's a wide audience.
Tribunes erected, houses are being rented so that people could watch the tournament.
The tournament is part of the celebration of anything important.
Religious holidays, civic feasts, inauguration of somebody's reign, noble wedding and so forth.
And Maximilian uses the tournament as a way of amplifying his message, which is that he has qualities.
His qualities are both physical.
He will run against somebody holding a lance, running the risk of actually being struck, uh unhorsed, possibly wounded.
He was actually wounded in a tournament many times during his life.
This is a demonstration of his dexterity as a horseman and as a- And his courage.
And his courage.
But ultimately because he had, uh, chronicles done in a pseudo-autobiographical way telling stories of him fighting against others in the tournament, he has himself depicted as a loser also.
I think that's very important because then it shows a moral character, the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity.
The idea that he has, um, the endurance that is required for somebody who will be facing challenges.
It's not just about being supreme.
It's also about being combative.
One suspects that armors over time were split apart, parts of it were sold.
How rare is it to have actually a full armor?
Those things are among the rarest, um, especially in the 15th century, when most elements are completely independent from another.
And it's very rare indeed to find those twenty to fifty elements that were originally designed to go together, uh, as something coherent to have remained together after centuries.
And that's the case for the one that is in the show here?
It is- Or is it, is it somewhat made up?
It is not made up.
However, there was some soul searching because it was kept with other armors of, with similar features in the same place.
And over the centuries, those elements got mixed up.
So our colleagues in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the 1950s did some test fittings, trying to see which pieces really stylistically and morphologically were connected the best.
The helmet of that armor, however, had been separated from the body since the 18th century.
And this is one of the very rare opportunities to see what the overall armor would have looked like with the original helmet, which is now in a private collection, reunited.
That armor was made within months after Maximilian for the first time was tried by combat.
He fought the French at Guinegate in 1479.
He was at the time 20 years old.
This was his first victory.
And therefore he commissions this extraordinary armor from Germany.
And it is the one in which he rides into his lands, visits his subjects.
It was something that was unlike anything that had been seen in the low countries before, because stylistically it was deeply German and in sophistication, in articulation and from a point of view of style, it was an absolutely superlative armor.
Maximilian even struggled to pay for it.
It's really a spectacular piece, as are so many objects in this exhibition.
One could almost, in many instances, speak of these elements as a species of sculpture.
So that's the very first reason that I became interested in arms and armor and in armor in particular.
It's this ability to transform the body of the wearer.
It's the fact that the best armorers of their day were capable of endowing something that weighed 60 pounds or more with grace, with elegance.
They were fashion elements that dictated what the overall architecture might look like.
But then the way you can protect the head, there are many different ways, and the armorers always were drawn for the princely patrons to create something that was aesthetically pleasing and captivating.
And we're trying here to show the diverse options that were available to somebody who had the means to acquire the finest armor during the period.
And there is one very famous armor that has disappeared and it is only known through one representation, which is an extraordinary painting by Cranach in the exhibition.
This is the devotional picture.
It's elements of a altarpiece, one of the wings.
It represents the Roman Legionnaire St. Maurice, who was a Legionnaire based in Africa.
And the armor, however, is a portrait of an object that really existed.
It's an armor made of solid silver.
It was decorated with gems and pearls, also with gilding.
And it was Maximilian's.
It was Maximilian's.
Maximilian, however, chronically ran out of money fighting the Venetians, the Turks, the French and others, sometime his own subjects.
He never fully paid for that armor, so it stayed with the armorer.
And in 1519, Charles the Fifth redeemed it, apparently wore it for his coronation as King of the Romans, and then gave it as a gift to a Cardinal.
And that Cardinal turned it into reliquary as a container for the bones of St. Maurice.
And it was displayed in a church.
Lucas Cranach had the mission to create images of the saint based on the armor that was associated with it.
And the Cardinal ran into financial difficulties and within 20 years the armor was melted down and the, and the jewels scattered.
There's an astonishing picture of the end of the exhibition, which is the portrait of Maximilian in death.
What is the significance of this?
This is the first representation as far as I know, in Western art of a sovereign as a dead mortal, as a dead person.
It must have been commissioned by Maximilian, who had a lot of original ideas.
It's showing him as a humble mortal.
We know from his last will and Testament that he asked for his body to be beaten with rods and for his teeth to be knocked out.
The idea was that he was a sinner.
And by, by showing humility in how his body had to be treated after his death, he was showing his contrition, his penance, his willingness to acknowledge his sins and ask to be forgiven.
Why is the show called The Last Knight?
Why is Maximilian called The Last Knight?
So it's certainly not a name he would've wanted for himself.
Maximilian thought of himself as the first among many and the premiere of many kinds.
He certainly wanted to be a knight.
And the Last Knight is a term that came from the 19th century for romantic writing where Maximilian was viewed as a romantic figure.
Virtually all of Maximilian's descendants had the more bureaucratic approach to power and to, to the rule.
And so in that sense, Maximilian was viewed by his own kin as the last of a kind, as somebody who had secured for them influence and prestige very much through his martial deeds and his martial image.
This is an exhibition full of great art and sculpture in the form of armor, of history, of pageantry.
It really has everything for everyone and we are so grateful to you for creating the exhibition, uh, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thank you for explaining it so cogently.
Thank you, Philippe.
Thank you so much.