Article originally published in:
Military Heritage magazine, August 2003
Militaria: Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ Arms and Armor Collection
By Peter Suciu
The world famous New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts features a collection of arms and armor that are unsurpassed in North America.
With the largest, and easily one of the finest, collections of arms and armor in North America The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is a must see for those with an interest in rare and seldom seen armor from around the world. Founded in 1912 the collection totals more than 14,000 pieces with several thousand on permanent display since the wing was reorganized in 1991.
Located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side adjacent to Central Park the Met is a favorite cultural center with its impressive collections of artwork from every corner of the globe. As with its other galleries and wings, Met’s collection of arms and armor on display are captivating as much for their artistic merit as for their historical impact. Divided by period and culture the collection shows how the military tools of the day mirrored trends in lifestyle and fashion. Almost the entire collection consists of items that were made before 1900, and in fact much of it dates further back in time. “Arms from today, or even from this century is not what this collection is about,” says Stuart W. Pyhrr, curator in charge of the department of arms and armor.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to look at. “What we do have is the best collection in North America of high-end handcrafted armor that was finely made.” Much of the armor on display from the European collection is actually from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with a combination of tournament, parade and field armor – and all of it very impressive to see.
The main fundamental difference in these types of armors was in the protection that they provided to the wearer. “Obviously the parade armor was lighter and more detailed than a piece meant for the tournament and of course for battle,” adds Pyhrr. All of it reflects the fashions of the day in regards to the shape of the breastplates and especially the armor over the wearer’s feet. Most of this didn’t actually affect the protection but rather mirrored what a knight or lord might wear in their civilian garb.
Much of the European collection is also of German and Italian origin as these states produced some of the highest quality armaments of the era. Today these shinning suits of metal forever stand guard and are ready for tournament and battle as they greet visitors to the gallery’s main hall, which has been designed to be reminiscent of a medieval castle. Adorning the high ceilings are reproduction banners – about the only non-period items on display – and these are artistic representations of the pseudo heraldry of the legendary Knights of the Round Table. “During the 15th century in England coats of arms were created for these knights,” explains Pyhrr who adds that it was necessary for such popular, albeit semi-fictional, characters to have their own coats of arms. “The museum therefore worked to utilize these designs to accompany the hall.”
These legendary banners are being utilized because the hall receives ample natural sunlight that adorns the room and gives the armor a shinning quality, but is not ideal for period cloth with rich designs. Thus the more delicate and sensitive collections are placed in adjoining rooms where they are protected and preserved for many future generations.
The Old World Arrives in New York’s Met
The inspiring collection of armor made its way to the United States following the founding of the gallery at the turn of the century and during the depression era in Europe, especially in Germany, many museums were forced to sell off parts of their collections just to maintain the rest. Much of this was a great boon to the Met, which saw its once humble assortment grow to one of the most respected in the entire world.
And it isn’t just the traditional European armor that is represented in the Met. In addition to the aforementioned German and Italian examples, there are pieces from around the globe including fine examples from Asia, the Islamic world and even North America. While it is possible to see the entire permanent collection in a mere hours, it is safe to say that the Met can enthrall visitors for a lifetime with its unique pieces that are completely out of the ordinary.
Much of this is owed to the first curator, Dr. Bashford Dean (1867-1928), who had single-handedly established the department as one of the foremost collections of its kind in the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art received its first examples of arms and armor in 1881, but it was Dr. Dean who established a separate department in 1912, which remains the only one of its kind in the United States today. Dean oversaw the rapid growth of the collection, and even acquired many of the “second best” items for himself, which in turn inspired a generation of American collectors of the era, many of whom would later make generous donations to the museum.
A key acquisition for the Met was from William H. Riggs, an American who donated nearly 2,000 pieces – including some of the finest examples of French armor on display today – to the museum in 1913. This was followed by outstanding donations of swords and daggers in 1926 by respected European collector Jean Jacques Reubell. When Dr. Bashford Dean died in 1928 he left his own collection of more than one thousand pieces to the Met.
To this day unique and otherwise irreplaceable items make their way to the collection through private donations. These include a notable collection of colonial era engraved powder horns that were donated by the widow of Grenville Gilbert in 1937, and a highly prized group of Colt revolvers that were presented to the museum by pioneer enthusiast John E. Parsons. Since the department’s reorganization in 1991 a few other outstanding donations have further enhanced the collection including a gift of one half of a pair of legendary Colt revolvers. Samuel Colt had personally given this particular item, which was donated to the museum by dealers George and Butonne Repaire, to the Sultan of Turkey during the Crimean War. What makes this so fascinating is that this gun’s twin was presented to Czar Nicholas I during the same trip to Europe. Both firearms survive to this day and the sister weapon currently resides on permanent display in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Armor from the Near and Far East
When one thinks of armor the images of knights in gleaming suits of highly shined iron probably come to mind and visitors to the Met won’t be disappointed as plenty of these styles are on permanent display, but there are also dozens of equally impressive pieces from other faraway lands. Complimenting the department of arms and armor’s Western pieces are notable collections of Islamic materials, which had been long overlooked by collectors and scholars alike. Today Islamic armor is much more appreciated, giving insight to the Muslim countries that created these stunning pieces of work.
Much of the Islamic collection, which includes 15th century Iranian and Antolian turban helmets, were original pieces acquired by Dr. Dean in 1904. The daughter of collector Giovanni P. Morosini presented a group of richly jeweled Ottoman Turkish edged weapons to the Met in 1923, while the Islamic arms permanent displays were greatly benefited by the addition of some four thousand pieces that had been assembled by George Cameron Stone and bequeathed in 1934.
While many of the pieces of the Western galleries of arms and armor were acquired from European museums, it is of note that much of the Islamic arms have come by way of the Topkai Museum in Istanbul. As conquers during the height of their empire the Ottoman Turks had recovered vast amounts of historically significant pieces and much of this sadly was sold on the open market to art collectors when the Topkai did a massive housecleaning that could almost be compared to a second sacking of Constantinople! Fortunately many of the pieces remained together and much of it, like the Colt revolver, has made their new permanent home in New York City.
Notable among the Islamic displays is what is considered to be a prized piece for the Met; a rare and highly detailed Ottoman Yataghan sword, the traditional blade of the Turkish warriors, which features a walrus ivory and gold handle with silver, rubies, turquoise and pearl inlays. This 16th century blade is from the court of Süleyman the Magnificent while its sister blade remains in the Topkapi today. Other outstanding pieces in the Islamic collection include an Indian dagger from the Mughal period that dates to the 17th century and shows the splendor of the region’s artisans; as well as a 17th century Indian coat of chain mail, which clearly shows the difference styles of craftsmanship that went into making mail armor.
The differences of these unique styles are also apparent with the Metropolitan’s renowned collection of Japanese arms and armor, which Pyhrr’s stresses is the largest and most respected outside of Japan. “There are more than 2500 pieces of armor and sword furniture including tsuba in the Japanese collection,” says Pyhrr. “And much of this is owed again to Dr. Dean’s efforts, which include many pieces dating back to the 14th century. These were very lucky finds.”
As with the Topaki Museum, it was common to find that suddenly the Japanese were not interested in their history following their rapid advances toward modernization at the end of the 19th century. Noble families in Japan suddenly sold off notable collections of Edo and early period arms and armor, especially after the sword was forbidden to be worn by Imperial decree. Dean made two visits to Japan, first in 1900 and then in 1905 and his acquisitions formed the basis of two personal collections, the first assembled in 1904 and sold to the museum and the second one donated by him in 1914 after he ceased collecting in this area.
Today thanks to generous gifts this collection consists of thousands of pieces of armor, swords, fittings and other accoutrements, of which many are on permanent display. These include notable pieces such as the museum’s earliest blade, a tantô (the Samurai dagger) from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), as well as a katana (the Samurai long sword) blade from the Muromachi period (1392-1573). Of course the prized piece is the complete set of Edo period (1615-1868) armor of the Gusoku type.
Although minor compared to the vast collections of Japanese arms and armor the permanent displays of Chinese and Korean, as well as the new addition of Tibetan pieces are also impressive. Much of this armor shows its own ethnic characteristics, especially the Tibetan as much of that tiny nation’s history has been suppressed by the ruling Chinese government. These pieces include a rare surviving wicker shield with iron fittings dating to the 14th-16th centuries as well as horse armor that features the distinctive influence left by the Mongols. Much of the Tibetan style of armor was all but unknown to the West until a British expedition arrived in the land at the turn of the last century. Many examples of this type of armor were taken back to Great Britain by eager British troops but few of this armor have ever been seen in North America.
Armor as art
Obviously the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been acquired for their artistic merit, and this is clearly the case with the remarkable collection of Italian and Germanic suits, but equally impressive are the series of English parade and tournament armor that was made in the royal workshops at Greenwich for Tudor courtiers. Every piece has an outstanding story to tell and one of the most revealing about the period from which it comes is a suit of cuirassier armor from the Baroque period.
The changing military doctrine of the idea had suggested that armor’s use was limited, especially with the advent of firearms. This particular cuirassier armor was produced in either Milan or Brescia between 1610-1620. The approximately 86 pound steel suit is highly detailed in gold inlay and was obviously created specifically for a wealthy heavy cavalryman. The suit prominently displays dents made from pistol shots but these were not obtained in battle but rather are the maker’s guarantee of the armor’s quality! “This was proof of its strength,” confirms Pyhrr, who emphasizes that this was considered the standard way of testing the suit’s protective qualities. “This bullet dent was to let the wearer know that the armor would stop other bullets.”
The versatility of armor is also better understandable from pieces on display as part of the permanent collection. A recent addition to the main hall is a suit of English armor that belonged to the Earl of Cumberland from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. This is actually a mixed set of field and tournament pieces allowed for numerous uses by changing off helms and breastplates. One equally notable piece is a cover for a sword hilt. This French-made cover is the only one known in existence and is the perfect compliment to the museum’s distinguished collection of French small-swords.
The collection of small arms, including Flintlock pistols, breech-loading sporting rifles and other firearms is not that extensive – but like the Samuel Colt revolver each item has historic and artistic significance and would speak volumes to collectors. Among the notable weapons there are examples of Napoleonic firearms as well as the famous “Kentucky” flintlock rifle that permanently grace the collection.
Just as interesting are the later period theatrical armor that was utilized by nobility as a part of the traditional pomp and pageantry. This era of armor has long been overshadowed but is gaining appreciation for its artistic value. Likewise the armor has inspired countless movies – and while we often must be forgiven of cinematic representation of armor, it is worth mentioning that the head armor restorer had actually used his skills to create the highly detailed, and extremely realistic, armor worn by actress Ingrid Bergman in the 1948 film Joan of Arc.
While the exact whereabouts of the armor were unknown to Pyhrr he did stress that the museum normally prides itself on its collection of stunning “real world” arms and armor from around the world. And like many of the other permanent exhibits in the museum, this is a collection that is worthy of great pride and will hopefully be maintained and expanded for future generations to enjoy.