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Knights in Armor exhibition at Frist Art Museum

by Cass Teague
Mounted figure with equestrian bard: Italian (Brescia). Suit of armor, 1560-65. Steel, mail, bronze, leather, and fabric; European. Chanfron, mid-16th century. Steel and leather; European. Bit and bridle, 16th century. Steel and bronze; European. Stirrups, 16th century. Steel and leather; European. Elements of barding (peytral and crupper), 19th century. Fabrics. Collection of Museo Stibbert, Florence, Italy

The Frist Art Museum is hosting Knights in Armor, an exhibition of remarkable Renaissance arms and armor from the world-renowned collection of the Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy. Organized by Contemporanea Progetti in collaboration with the Museo Stibbert, the exhibition will be on view in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries through October 10, 2022.

With more than one hundred highly engaging objects – including full suits of armor, mounted equestrian figures, helmets, swords, and paintings – Knights in Armor tells the fascinating tale of the European knight. While describing the historical and functional contexts of Renaissance arms and armor, the exhibition simultaneously highlights the undeniable beauty and artistic appeal of these works. Knights were mounted soldiers who fought in battles, jousts, and tournaments, and required special cladding to cover their bodies from head to toe.

“In the Middle Ages, knights wore mail, armor made of a mesh of interlocking rings. This exhibition, however, focuses on a later chapter in their history when, just before 1500, they transitioned almost completely to wearing plate armor, which provided superior protection,” says Frist Art Museum senior curator Trinita Kennedy. “Wearable sculpture and fashionable dress as well as defensive protection, plate armor was produced in sophisticated shapes and enhanced with etched and embossed ornament and inscriptions. Horses were elegantly outfitted with their own armor, known as a bard.”

Approaching the exhibition entrance, guests are greeted by an impressive German suit of armor from the early 16th century in the style favored during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The introductory gallery explains how a boy became a knight and includes armor made for children to signal status and dynastic power. Emphasizing armor as fashion, this gallery also features a large full-length portrait of the sixteenth-century Italian knight Giovan Battista Del Monte dressed in elegant armor.

The second gallery, which spotlights two grand equestrian figures, focuses on iconic armor. During the Renaissance, a knight’s full armor, known as a harness, was a complex assembly of about twelve to fourteen parts that together weighed approximately forty to forty-five pounds. During the Renaissance, expert armorers helped elevate armor to an artform.

The third gallery is dedicated to jousts and tournaments-mock battles that allowed knights to display their skills before a judge and spectators. It features representations of these popular spectacles and the special helmets and other elements that knights added to their armor to protect themselves and enhance their appearance.

Weapons are the major focal point of the final gallery. The proliferation and improvement of firearms during the Renaissance had significant consequences for armor, eventually leading to its decline and obsolescence. To be bulletproof, plate armor had to become thicker and thicker until it was too heavy to wear. The exhibition concludes with examples of nineteenth-century armor.

In the Frist’s interactive Martin ArtQuest(r) Gallery, guests of all ages can look forward to new art-making activities, including designing shields, creating armor for model horses, drawing a knight, animating mythical creatures, building block castles, and much more.

Programs of interest include: Adult ARTlab: Metalworking at The Forge Nashville (formerly Fort Houston), 217 Willow Street, Nashville Saturdays, August 6, September 17, and October 1; and three free films in the Auditorium: Monty Python and the Holy Grail(1975), Thursday, July 28 at 6:30 p.m.; The Green Knight (2021), Thursday, August 25 at 6:30 p.m.; and Man of La Mancha (1972), Saturday, September 10 at 2:00 p.m., all Rated PG; first come, first seated with the Museo Stibbert, Florence, Italy

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