We’ve been sticking closer to home lately and not venturing off to neighboring states on the weekends. We decided to go up to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville and see what they had to offer for a day out.
I’m not much for art museums. While I love art history, wandering through an art museum unguided is not my thing. At least when I go to a museum I can appreciate the skill of the artist even if the work itself doesn’t particularly move me. Sorry to say however that this does not extend to modern art. I’m of the uncultured who can’t figure out why it’s art and grumble about it being something a kid could do. So to my dismay, when we arrived at the museum we were told to check out the amazing modern art collection on the first floor and then if we had time to go and see the more trivial exhibit on display upstairs.
The modern art exhibit was everything I don’t understand about art. Pieces of twine stretched across the room, a large piece of glass with a square drawn in the middle, a rickety bridge attached to the wall and going nowhere. At one point we were instructed to put on shoe covers and go into a white box with a square of light on one wall. It felt very much like that scene in Willy Wonka where they enter the tv room. Surrounded by pretentious sounding 20 year olds talking about the deeper meaning of the square and what the light represented I was in a impatient state of grumbling. But we decided to go and check out the more “trivial exhibit” upstairs before heading for home.
I perked up as we reached the top of the stairs and saw that the exhibit was all about Knights and their Armor. Now this seemed to be much more my kind of museum experience. This collection of over a hundred pieces of rare arms and armor comes from the Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy. It was a fascinating look at the artistry of armor from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.
Knights have always been a romanticized symbol of bravery, fidelity, and honor throughout pop culture. But the historical reality of knights is a far different story. Knights first came to be during the age of Charlemagne. During his reign as Holy Roman Emperor from 747-814 Charlemagne united much of Europe through conquest. For the soldiers who fought on horseback they were rewarded with land from the areas they were victorious in taking over. But when Charlemagne died, his vast empire was fractured into a world of small settlements. From then on the the land was dotted by castles of feudal lords with their trusty knights to protect them.
Knights armor was meant to be seen, to be flashy and impressive, and was considered central to the identity of the knight wearing it. It was made to provide a sharp contrast between the knights and the peasantry. Knights had their armor custom made and personalized each piece with coat of arms, monograms, mottos, or other ornaments. This flare extended also to their horses who were likewise attired in beautiful fabrics and detailed head pates to match their knight.
Because armor was meant to be seen, the artistry used in creating the pieces often focused on the parts of the body that would be seen the most. Helmets, breastplates, leg guards, and gloves were the most artistically endowed pieces of a knights armor. The detail that went into each piece was incredible.
Most armor pieces had to be specially made to exactly fit the knights body. If a knight had a larger belly they would have to bend the metal to fit every contour. Some pieces were designed to not only be impressive, but to also have a tactical advantage such as a pointed visor to deflect any incoming attach of small items. Others had no nose at all so things could just slide off. But each piece is carefully decorated for the knight and what he might have to face.
The exhibit showed armor from all around Europe, each showing some subtle decorations in line with the region they came from. Some armor was made to look like it was covered in dragon scales which showcased a wealth of the region but also gave the impression of being impervious to any attack.
And what would an exhibit about knights be without a nod to the favorite sport event of jousting. Jousting gave the knights a place to show off their skills between battles. Often their armor for a joust would be more ornate and heavier than what they would wear on the battlefield. Jousting tournaments would last for several days. These tournaments often coincided with other events such as a coronation, royal marriage, or a religious holiday.
After the armor the exhibit turned the focus to the arms of the knights. These highly decorative swords, knives, and shields were seen as a symbol of status as well as the ultimate weapon. With the Renaissance came a more specialized group of weapons. With the rise in swords being owned by men outside of the military, training schools were established where the art of fencing was born.
We spent a lot of time going through the armor section of the museum. We made our way over to the kid section and found that here the knights and armor were the theme of the area. They had drawing stations set up to copy the artistic armor, castle building with blocks, shield decorating, and horse figures that you could create your own horse armor out of tinfoil.
It was clear that I had a different view from the museum worker who directed us when we arrived. What she felt was the more trivial of exhibits turned out to be our favorite part that kept us mesmerized for a couple of hours. The artistry and skill that changed a piece of metal into a ornate and beautiful layer of protection was incredible. I was so glad that we could step back into history briefly and see the knights and their armor.
If you enjoyed this visit to the art museum, you may also enjoy these other places with incredible and interesting artwork:
Thanks for coming along on a visit to the Frist Art Museum. May your armor always gleam in the sunlight.