Acquisition of Monumental Early Renaissance Horse and Man Armors by the Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the last complete European horse armors to have remained in private hands, accompanied by an imposing man armor, has been acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Created in 1507 by Wilhelm von Worms the Elder, the most famous Nuremberg armorer of his day, and entirely made of steel plates enriched with delicately etched and gilded figures of a dragon and noblewomen, this monumental horse armor is the only example to have become available in 45 years, and one of only a handful in existence to be of such an early date. The man armor, created around 1505 by the armorer Matthes Deutsch in Landshut, is one of under a dozen complete, or near complete field armors of that period to have survived. It is Deutsch’s latest known work, and his most richly decorated.

horse armorThe horse armor was originally made for Ulrich of Württemberg (1487-1550), a German Duke who became famous for his military achievements, impetuousness, and controversial public and personal affairs. In 1498 he had been betrothed to the six-year-old niece of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria and, amid many twists of fortune, would later align himself with Martin Luther to expand the reach of the Protestant Reformation. It was commissioned in the year when Duke Ulrich was preparing to ride among other German princes to attend the coronation of Maximilian I in Rome. Although the trip was aborted and Maximilian instead took the title of Emperor Elect in Trient in 1508, Ulrich conceivably used the horse armor to march into France at the head of an imperial army in 1513.
“The Museum had always wanted to have an extraordinary horse armor to augment our holdings of European arms and armor, but finding one has been an especially elusive quest, given the exceptional rarity of this type of object,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer. “This extraordinary acquisition has certainly been well worth the wait and we are grateful to Pierre Terjanian, the J. J. Medveckis Associate Curator for Arms and Armor, for pursuing this extraordinary ensemble. It will look spectacular at the center of the Museum’s renowned Kretzchmar von Kienbusch Galleries of Arms and Armor. We are deeply indebted to our donors, Athena and Nicholas Karabots and the Karabots Foundation, who made this acquisition possible.”
Nicholas Karabots stated, “The Karabots Foundation was moved by the interest shown in the Arms and Armor Collection by children and young adults and it is the Foundation’s hope that the addition of the horse and man armor to the existing collection will result in the development of programs at the Museum that will further interest and encourage these young people to pursue higher levels of self-improvement via advanced education.”
At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, October 21, 2009, the armors will be unveiled in the center of Gallery 247, nearby the large west-facing windows that overlook the Schuylkill River and boathouses. A group of 30 fourth graders from the Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia will unveil the ensemble, along with Museum Director Rub, Associate Curator Terjanian, and the donors Athena and Nicholas Karabots. The Arms and Armor Galleries are consistently among the Museum’s most popular with school children and families. Currently closed for installation, Galleries 246 and 247 will reopen to the public at noon on October 22, 2009.
The horse armor consists of head, neck, chest, and hindquarter defenses. Both head and neck sections evoke a dragon. The main edges of the steel plates are bordered by delicate etched and gilded foliage, and some plates are further decorated with etched and gilded figures of richly-dressed noblewomen holding banners inscribed with Duke Ulrich’s motto. The main plate of the head defense is etched and gilded with an impressive winged dragon, and the escutcheon on the forehead with a noblewoman’s figure. Pierre Terjanian noted: “The exquisite decoration amply demonstrates the gradual and complex shift from the late Gothic to the early Renaissance styles in the German-speaking lands.” He added, “This is the only surviving early 16th-century complete horse armor to have been made in Nuremberg, and the only known example made by Wilhelm von Worms. In conception and execution its decoration is without equal among all other surviving man and horse armors. They doubtlessly are the work of a prominent Nuremberg graphic artist.”
Like several of the finest pieces in the von Kienbusch collection, the horse and man armors were once part of the collection of the Counts Breuner-Enckevoirt and subsequently of the Dukes of Ratibor at Schloss Grafenegg in Austria. They were exhibited together as a complete equestrian figure. In 1933 they were sold to the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who, confronted with financial difficulties, was forced to part with them shortly thereafter, as with many other remarkable pieces in his extensive arms and armor collection. The ensemble remained in private hands until recently (2008).
About Duke Ulrich of Württemberg
Born in 1487 in Reichenweier, Alsace, he succeeded in title to his uncle, Duke Eberhard II of Württemberg, in 1498, but began his personal rule only in 1503 when he was sixteen. Duke Ulrich earned immediate military fame and expanded his dominions at the expense of the Prince Elector Ruprecht of the Palatinate, through his active and successful participation in the so-called Landshut War of Succession in 1504. Betrothed in 1498 to Sabina of Bavaria, the six-year old niece of the King of the Romans Maximilian I of Austria, Duke Ulrich married her in 1511 with great pomp. This marriage was an unhappy one, however. The Duke apparently formed a relationship with the wife of one of his leading courtiers, and killed her husband during a hunting party in 1515. The Duke’s wife fled to the court of her brother, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria. It was he who headed the troops of the Swabian League that invaded Duke Ulrich’s lands in retaliation for his occupation of the free imperial city of Reutlingen in 1519. From that time until 1534 Duke Ulrich lived in exile. He offered his services to King Francis I of France, and with the assistance of the Swiss attempted to recapture his lands, which had been mortgaged to the Hapsburgs. With the help of his cousin, the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, he was able to march into Württtemberg and defeat the troops of the Hapsburgs’ military governor at Lauffen in 1534. He immediately introduced the religious Reformation advocated by Martin Luther into his lands and relentlessly fortified these against possible invasions. Duke Ulrich was one of the leading German Protestant Princes in the Smalkaldic league formed against the Emperor Charles V of Austria and his Catholic allies. Following the League’s defeat in 1547, Duke Ulrich was to pay a hefty fine to the Emperor. However, he died shortly thereafter, in 1550. Though raised as a Catholic at the Hapsburg Court, his son and successor, Christoph, continued the religious Reformation in Württemberg.
At the moment when Duke Ulrich was planning to ride, along with other German princes, with Maximilian I of Austria to Rome, where Maximilian was to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Julius II, Maximilian was trying to secure funds and troops to enter hostile territories in northern Italy, held by the French or in the hands of the Republic Venice. Because of insufficient resources and Venice’s fierce opposition to his plans, Maximilian never went to Rome and took the title of Holy Roman Emperor in Trient/Trento in 1508. It is conceivable that Duke Ulrich commissioned this lavish horse armor to accompany Maximilian to Rome, and that he might have used it when he marched at the head of an imperial army into France in 1513.
At the end of the 16th century Duke Ulrich already ranked among the great, memorable figures of his day. Significantly, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol requested one of his armors for the great “armory of heroes” that he formed at Ambras Castle in Tyrol.
About the decoration of the horse armor
The technique used for the decoration, known by its German name Goldschmelz, was favored in the German-speaking lands about 1490 through 1530, and briefly again around 1600. The process combines shallow etching (the impression of designs into metal surfaces with the help of acid), fire-gilding (the application of gold with the help of copper, mercury, and heat), careful burnishing (gentle polishing to create even, smooth surfaces), and fire-bluing (the oxidation of steel surfaces to a blue/black sheen with the help of heat). This singular technique—generally restricted to luxury armors and edged weapons—allowed for the creation of uniquely smooth, painterly ornamentation, in contrast to the more standard form of etching that left discernible recesses in the metal.
About the armorers
Wilhelm von Worms the Elder (active Nuremberg, master in 1499, died 1538), who made this horse armor, was a highly regarded armorer working in Nuremberg, one of Europe’s leading centers of armor manufacture in the sixteenth century. His distinguished clientele included many German princes, including Margrave Friedrich V of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1460–1536) and Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490–1568). Duke Ulrich of Württemberg (1487–1550), for whom he made this horse armor, often used his services. Von Worms’ standing was such that in 1527 he was admitted into the greater municipal council of Nuremberg, an honor bestowed only to a select few craftsmen. His other key works are preserved in the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
Matthes Deutsch (active Landshut, recorded from 1485, last documented c. 1505), who made the man armor, was another distinguished German master armorer. Active in Landshut, where the dukes of Bavaria commissioned much of their personal armor, he worked for other German courts, including that those of the Princes Electors Friedrich III and Johann of Saxony (1463–1525, and 1468–1532, respectively). His surviving works are of consistently high quality, though generally undecorated. His other key works are preserved in the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer and Schloss Ambras, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden; Musée de l’Armée, Paris; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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