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Feathered Knights in Shining Armor

You've been living under a rock if you haven't noticed a certain level of Medieval mania within pop culture. Renaissance Faires and LARPs (live action role playing games) increasingly abound, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones series, which has resulted in at least one “reality show." And here at the museum, we're completely on board with some German Romantic escapism (with more than a touch of nationalism). The museum's new Medieval and Renaissance galleries are still in the early stages of development, but until December, the nineteenth-century prints in Gallery 221a will be enthusiastically reenacting their own Renaissance.

Sadly, there isn’t room for a full-sized set of caparisoned jousters careening down the second floor hallway on their mounts, lances in hand. But the noblemen in this liminal space, (who could be students escaped from Lucas Cranach the Younger’s Art of Wrestling), parade by with swords, steeds, and armor nonetheless. Using the new medium of lithography, artists such as the Senefelder brothers and Ferdinand Piloty enthusiastically copied extant Germanic treasures including a manuscript of jousts held at the court of Wilhelm IV in Munich between 1510 and 1545, and invented others entirely. Piloty’s early nineteenth-century Saint George in Armor lithograph (below left) for instance, closely referenced a 1506 woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (below right), but the lithographer outfitted his warrior saint in a glowing haze and simpler armor. Omitting Cranach’s ostrich-feathered helmet and adding a shock of corkscrew curls, he enhanced the figure’s soft, contemplative demeanor.

Georges

Even more than Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer’s art was considered a vital part of the distant Germanic past.  For one enormous Dürer woodcut coat of arms, only a single damaged impression had survived, and so the artist completed the missing lower right part of the composition himself.  The dozen peacock feathers atop this imposing crest also alluded to current tournament fashions suggesting prowess through luxury, exaggerated size and bright, distinguishing coloring.  The surviving print in fact remains brightly colored, though its copyist only reproduced the woodcut lines.

jousting small

Feathers assume an even more active (or perhaps, proactive) role in the double-page Senefelder Jousters facsimile (above) showing a festive combat in Munich around 1545.  The Art Institute's partially colored proof was never filled in with the blue and whites diamonds of the Bavarian arms or lavish hues of the combatants' house colors from the original manuscript. Yet the contrast of shining metals (golden bells, silvery armor, brass fittings) make more of a statement about the types of materials on display without the distraction of color. The distinct metals suggest the ringing of the bells and the sliding of the armor's lames (overlapping plates) in motion. These contrast with the quiet softness of the feather-tufted helmets and horse armor (detail below). Most functional of all is the pillow-like feather cover wrapped diagonally around the fallen lances at the bottom of the image. In tournament settings, these were used to keep the wood from shattering in all directions on impact, saving lucky nobles from splinters.  The soft, sketch-like touch of lithography makes these feathery accessories even more tactile than they would be in a woodcut, and draw the viewer into a vibrantly re-imagined, if slightly glorified past.

feathered lance

And if this leaves you wanting even more from medieval times, we're launching a behind-the-scenes video series on our Arms and Armor collection in this very space later this month. Stay tuned!

Image Credits:

Top left: Ferdinand Piloty after Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George in Armor, n.d. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Top right: Lucas Cranach, the elder. Saint George Standing, 1506. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Bottom: Clemens Senefelder and Theo Senefelder. Joust, from the Tournament Book of Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, 1817. Joseph Brooks Fair Fund.