Good cod! ‘Fashion in Steel’ exhibit hopes to dispel myths about medieval armor

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Some may know that knights in armor used upturned cod to lure women at parties, but a new display of medieval clothing shows the fashion was also embraced by bold, free-flowing noble women to show off their power.

The “Iron Men – Fashion in Steel” exhibition, which runs until June 26 at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, features 170 artifacts that shed new light on this complex subject, as well as selected paintings, textiles and sculptures.

Men liked exaggerated cods because they felt more masculine, brave and manly at public events, such as tournaments, and at court, according to the museum.

The museum has collected codpieces from around the world – historic Habsburg armor from Austria’s own collections, as well as pieces from London and New York.

Armor for Wilhelm von Rogendorf (1481-1541) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Contrary to its popular image of clumsy and cumbersome, the armor is so well made that its wearer can somersault through it.
KHM-Museumsverband/Zenger

The exhibit shows both the fashionable look of armor and its use as a disguise.

“Tournaments were often held during Carnival and many participants wore fantastic fancy dress armor – symbolic costumes that allowed their wearers to assume a role, while displaying their skills and bravery in front of a large audience,” explained the museum.

“For these jousts, gunsmiths made visors in the shape of human or animal heads, or with grotesque mythological faces.”

Exhibition of the Kunsthistorisches Museum
An exhibit from the Kunsthistorisches Museum exhibit, noting fashionable aspects of armour.
KHM-Museumsverband/Zenger

Video from the exhibit shows that the suits are so well made that their wearers can somersault through them.

Also included is a rather uncomfortable-looking piece, a steel corset from the Wallace Collection in London, England, which was made by Eleonora of Toledo, Duchess of Florence, with two cutouts for the wearer’s breasts to pass through. .

The exhibit hopes to dispel contemporary myths and stereotypes seen in Hollywood films of the “brave and manly yet also immobile and clumsy medieval warrior, encased in heavy steel armor apparently designed only for combat – whether on the battlefield or in tournaments, a sport that seems wild and martial to a modern-day spectator.”

Instead, the museum, in a statement, explains that these misconceptions are largely the product of 19th century views and contemporary films, from “Ivanhoe” to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones”.

The museum’s “Iron Men – Fashion in Steel” exhibit explores “the prominent role played by armor in modern day society, art and culture”, illustrating “its importance as a symbol political and dynastic, as a diplomatic gift, as a personal and historical souvenir, and, last but not least, as a fashionable steel outfit and a fantastic and symbolic disguise – beyond religious, ideological borders and gender.”

While the museum said Renaissance armor was primarily a form of protective clothing worn on the battlefield and in tournament play, imposing clothing played a central role in the life of a nobleman.

Armor of Emperor Maximilian II
Armor with a special genital codpiece area consisting of parts of a trim made for Emperor Maximilian II (1527–1576) at the “Iron Man – Fashion in Steel” exhibition.
KHM-Museumsverband/Zenger

Gunsmiths such as Lorenz Helmschmid in Augsburg, Germany, and Filippo Negroli in Milan, Italy were well-paid specialists who created exceptional and unique works of art. The museum said each piece reflects “the aesthetic preferences of the period in which it was produced.”

The fashionable side of the armor, including the puffed sleeves, mimicked the landsknechts, mercenary troops from southern Germany.

The museum also states that “nobles frequently wore various disguises, including women’s clothing, to attend the costume dances held in the evenings.”

But the museum explains that “cross-dressing was part of Renaissance chivalric culture. Our knight in shining armor was not only brave and strong, he was also dressed fashionably and at times even slightly sexist.”

Armor of Emperor Charles V
A lion-headed burgonnet made for Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
KHM-Museumsverband/Zenger

And wearing armor wasn’t just for men, women wore it too.

The museum said: “A very masculine garment, armor was closely linked to the construction and display of masculinity. The wearing of armor was considered a masculine domain and celebrated in early modern chivalry But literary and historical records tell of women wearing the armor and participating in battle, which has thwarted contemporary expectations of gender-specific female behavior.”

The museum also dispels another myth, stating that “armor, or to be exact, plate armor that completely envelops the body of the wearer, is not a medieval phenomenon, but dates from the early modern era. “.

The first fully functional sets of armor were produced in northern Italy in the early 15th century, and they reached their peak over the next two centuries. Full suits of armor were designed between the early 15th and first half of the 17th century to successfully fend off spears and swords. They served as protection against infantry weapons, including pikes, arrows and crossbows.

But changes in warfare, such as the development of firearms and cannons, played a major role in the demise of armor as protective military clothing.

Armor of Guidobaldo della Rovere
The Alla romana armor by Guidobaldo della Rovere (1514-1574) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna illustrates the different styles of design, depending on the period and the country.
Patrimonio Nacional, Real Armeria/Zenger

The museum explained that despite the armors weighing around 44 to 66 pounds, the weight was spread all over the body. Protective clothing has been designed to allow the wearer to move around easily. Otherwise, clumsy, immobile armored men would have clashed on European battlefields in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In order to provide this flexibility, plate armor consists of many individual pieces, often up to 200. This meant that walking, running and jumping was not a problem.

Masterpieces from the Imperial Armory in Vienna – the largest such collection in the world – form the heart of the exhibition.

Also on display are loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Real Armeria in Madrid, the Wallace Collection in London and the Ronald S. Lauder Collection. Some of these artifacts have never been shown outside of their original collections and have been extensively restored for display.

There are also significant loans of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, loans from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Albertina and Wien Museum in Vienna, Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, as well as fragile, rarely exhibited and recently restored artifacts from the funds of the Imperial Armoury.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

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