A Visitor's Experience: The Minneapolis Institute of Art
"Splendor in Steel" Loan of Arms & Armour from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
An article by Craig Johnson
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) recently received fifteen items of arms and armour for long-term display as a loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the Met). As the premier collection of arms and armour in the United States, the Met has many exceptional examples of the armourer's and weapon makers' arts in its collection. Curator Corine Wegener of the MIA and Stewart Pyhrr, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in charge of the Department of Arms and Armour at the Met collaborated on a truly exceptional sample of these items to be displayed in the third floor Medieval Galleries of the MIA.
The quality and significance of the items on display are exceptional and something the student of arms and armour would find well worth traveling a distance to see.
Visiting The Minneapolis Institute of Art
Now that we have the local color in place, the MIA itself is nestled in a south Minneapolis neighborhood with abundant free parking and a facade that looks over an elegant park surrounded by mansions from the early days of Minneapolis, when it was the milling center of the world.
The museum charges no admissions fee, though donations are welcome. Some special exhibits will have a charge. The museum is open most days from 10am to 5pm as well as Thursday evenings. It is closed on Mondays.
The loan from the Metropolitan Museum is on display without charge. This exhibit was made possible by an anonymous donation. One has to thank the unnamed contributor for such a great experience and we certainly hope that it inspires others to participate in such a way.
Viewing the Collection
The MIA has several pieces from their own collection that are on display as well. These include a composite suit of full armour, a Pisan half armour, some early firearms, and a couple of smallswords integrated into the display of smallswords from the Met. There is one other piece that a student of armour should not miss on the first floor. In the Greek section is an example of a bronze Corinthian helmet of exceptional form and finish.
The loan items from The Met number fifteen pieces. These were chosen for their quality as exceptional samples of their particular type. This allows one to experience some truly stellar examples that would be difficult to find in many museums. The swords on display consist of one two-hander, a 12th to 13th century medieval sword; a rapier and dagger suite; and five smallswords.
The two-handed processional sword is one of the large group produced for the guard of the Duke of Brunswick in the mid 16th century. This particular example is of very good quality and is dated 1573. The complex hilt is very well made with some particularly nice steel work on the figured elements. The constructional details are also quite interesting to note, as the guard is a combination of forge welding and physical connections.
This would have been a light and fast sword with a very nice feel to it. Often first-time observers of such pieces, when they are in close proximity to them, are surprised by the size and dimension of this sword style, as they have envisioned something so much larger in their mind.
The rapier and dagger suite are a truly great pair of items to see. They are dated to circa 1580 and the blades are marked as being from Juan Martinez of Toledo, Spain. The hilts are probably German and are of gilt steel, likely from workshops in Dresden as these pieces are from the armoury of the Prince Electors of Saxony. The rapier weighs 3 pounds, 5 ounces and the hilt is of very good quality; this suite is a very good representation of usable weapons from this period. Both items are even more noteworthy for the fact that they have dulled edges and the tip of the rapier blade is rounded, indicating these were most likely high status practice weapons of the period. This would make them rare examples in any collection.
The smallswords cover a wide time period, from 1650 to the turn of the 19th century. My particular favorite is the earliest piece, circa 1650, with a figured hilt that depicts a unicorn and dragon in mortal conflict in three dimensions. The pommel and both sides of the plate are the same motif and the tails are particularly interesting as they weave in and out of the figures but are only connected as they would be anatomically. This detail indicates an exceptional level of craftsmanship for the fellow who completed this sculpture.
The armour examples are where one truly sees items among the very best examples of their type. There are four helmets, one pair of gauntlets, and a mail shirt.
The mail shirt is a 15th century example with a signed latten ring for Bechler as the German maker. This example of mail is a complete shirt with a very tailored cut. One can see the elements of the piece are not just tubes and flats but shaped as the arming coats of the day were tailored and has extra room at the elbows and shoulders for ease of movement. The rings are evenly formed and riveted cleanly. It is a great example of the mail maker's art.
The first helmet is a Maximilian-style armet with a grotesque visor in the shape of a Turk's face. This is a particularly famous helmet as the Met has used it as a part of their promotional campaigns over the years and it is a very high quality example of the armourer's craft. It weighs 7 pounds, 2 ounces and clearly shows the effect of combat use across the top of the skull: several sharp-bladed weapons have demonstrated the quality of the steel used by the helmet maker. The manipulation of the steel in the visor is another important feature to note as the depth of the work and formation of the shapes is quite good and done from a single piece of metal.
The second helmet is a sallet in the barbut style circa 1450-60. It shows the classical shaping of the helmet that many attribute to the early renaissance's love of the classical period. It is a nice counterpoint to the Corinthian helm on the first floor. Be sure to note the similarities and differences. The helmet is marked with the Lion of Saint Mark on the left cheek and is probably of Venetian manufacture. Take note of the reinforcing rib that is applied to the edge of the face opening. It is indicative of the rough work that was applied to some helmets in their working life. This type of helmet was often covered with fabrics or paint so the rib may have been hidden from view in its initial configuration. The helmet weighs 7 pounds, 4 ounces.
The last item of armour is a rare set of bifurcated mitten gauntlets made by Ulrich Holzman and Desiderius Hemschmied of Germany. They were made for an armour belonging to Phillip II of Spain dated circa 1550. The workmanship on these items is something that one can really only take in when viewing the originals in person. They are as crisp and well-defined as the day they were made and the etching on the decorative details is the best I have ever seen. The gauntlets have brass detailing and gold highlights. The internal leather padding and straps remain and are in great condition. These gauntlets are clearly an example of the armourer's art at its highest expression and may be impossible to equal in this day and age.
The museum itself is grand as envisioned by the early museum developers in the United States. It has had several additions and shares a lobby with the renowned Children's Theatre Company, which has the very best theatre for young people in the country. If you have your kids along it is a great opportunity for them to experience this theatre.
The MIA collection houses some great art as well as the items under discussion and one should save some time to admire the other galleries which house an exceptional collection of Chinese art and artifacts, several buildings moved from China, some great modern art, a large photography gallery, and an excellent ancient collection.
One of my personal favorite galleries houses period rooms saved from historic buildings all over the world that allow visitors to walk out of the museum's hallway and into another place, showing complete interiors from the Tudor period to our recent past.
The arms and armour items are on long-term loan to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The experience of seeing these pieces together is very much like traveling to one of the world's great armour museums. Any person traveling through Minneapolis is recommended to make time to see and experience these great items and a great museum.
About the Author
Craig Johnson is a craftsman who has been making swords and armour at Arms & Armor, Inc. in Minneapolis for about twenty years. A desire to study and learn about medieval and renaissance weapons and armour stems from a deep love of history and a misspent youth of watching Errol Flynn movies and the 70s version of The Three Musketeers. An interest in how these items were used also lead to a study of western martial arts. He also holds the position of Secretary to The Oakeshott Institute.
Photographer: Craig Johnson