Long before the “Night at the Museum” movie franchise, The Metropolitan Museum of Art made a dynamic Hollywoodesque “knight at the museum” film entitled “A Visit to the Armor Galleries.” It was released in 1924 as part of a program to make their spectacular arms and armor collection come alive for the public’s education. Enchanting scenes include a suit of medieval armor leaving its glass case to answer visitors’ questions, a knight in full armor on horseback galloping through Central Park with the Belvedere Castle folly in the background, and curators attiring themselves, from helmet to sabaton, for a swordfight and joust. There is record of the Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., famous for silent swashbuckler films, being impressed by the film.
A current lover of swashbuckling material is the businessman, collector, and philanthropist Ronald Lauder. Lauder, whose vast and diverse personal art collection is considered one of the world’s greatest, recounted in an interview with Artnet News, that he had been fascinated by The Met’s Arms and Armor department since he was a teenager.
“I would spend hours at the Met, imagining the stories of knights, kings, and princes. Later, I realized that arms and armor had a distinct beauty all its own, which represents the best sculpture of the 15th and 16th centuries.”
Lauder has since built his own outstanding arms and armor collection and has promised 91 of its objects to The Met. Some of these are included in the current blockbuster exhibit, “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection,” at the Neue Galerie New York, (closing on March 20, 2023).
In honor of the 20th anniversary of the museum he founded (located in a former Vanderbilt mansion on the Upper East Side), Lauder has put 500 works from his collection on display. The exhibit includes objects as varied as masterworks of Greek and Roman sculpture, Italian 13th- and 14th- century gold-ground paintings, objects for a Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities), modern Austrian and German artworks, and memorabilia from his favorite film, “Casablanca.”
Lauder is famous for his collecting manifesto that there are three categories of art: from impressive to awe-inspiring. He only collects from the latter. The exhibit is indeed full of superlatives and its knockout tableau is the curated display of arms and armor in a wood-paneled room on the museum’s second floor. Historic shields are hung like paintings on the walls, all manner of weapons and helmets gleam in visually dynamic groupings, and sculptural full suits of armor stand at attention.
The intimacy of the room providing opportunity for careful viewing and its creative curation help the viewer appreciate how these armorers were not only fine craftsman, but innovative artists. One highlight is the 1550 Field Armor, possibly made for Heinrich V, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, and exquisitely crafted. Field armor was constructed for functional use and, in this case, is also of high aesthetic quality.
‘The Last Knight’
This Neue exhibit evokes the 2019–2020 exhibit at The Met, “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I,” for which Lauder was a lender. As The Met explains in that exhibition’s overview, European armor in 15th and 16th centuries was profoundly significant, playing a role in political ambitions, strategies, and the knightly chivalric ideal. The Met’s exhibition brought together arms and armor from the court of Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519) alongside paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and manuscripts.
Opportunities to see physical examples of armor alongside artwork that feature these objects can greatly enhance subsequent viewing experiences. A striking highlight of the “The Last Knight” exhibition was a painting that is part of The Met’s permanent collection called “Saint Maurice” by the German Renaissance Old Master painter Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop. Saint Maurice, a commander of a Roman legion, was from North Africa and martyred in A.D. 280 or A.D. 300. In the 13th century in Germany, he began to be depicted in artwork as black.
In the Cranach painting, the early Christian saint is depicted anachronistically wearing early 16th-century field armor. The Met notes that the armor’s “shading and articulation of forms are sensitively handled” by the artist. The armor in the artwork is, in fact, thought to be based on the one worn by Emperor Maximilian I’s grandson, Charles V, when he was coronated in 1520. The sword that Saint Maurice holds may represent a ceremonial sword presented by the pope to Maximilian. This painting is a thrilling example of how arms and armor can play a strategic role in communicating an artwork’s symbolism.
Museums and collectors often buy arms and armor from private dealers. One such collector is the British gallery owner, Peter Finer, who recently exhibited at the 69th annual “The Winter Show,” a leading art, antiques, and design fair held every January in New York City. At Peter Finer’s booth was a magnificent early fluted “Maximilian” three-quarter length field armor. The gallery notes that Emperor Maximilian’s robust patronage of armorers influenced their design and production to such a degree that “his name is synonymous with the fluted armour of the early 16th century” and contributed to this period being the apex of the revival of ideal knighthood.
This idea of ideal gallantry continues to this day with collectors like Lauder displaying and donating historic works of art. As Lauder said in an interview, “Supporting museums and cultural institutions has been a key focus of mine. I consider myself a temporary guardian of the works in my collection, which belong ultimately to the public.”
The “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection” runs until March 27, 2023, at the Neue Galerie New York in New York City. To find out more, visit NeueGalerie.org