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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City houses the largest collection, spanning 5,000 years of art, in the world. Just approaching the massive building at the edge of Central Park on Fifth Avenue is like discovering a colossal Roman coliseum in the heart of Manhattan.
Beyond the collection of exquisite Tiffany stained glass windows, tile mosaics, and lamps, among other Gilded Age trappings I enjoyed this past week, I stumbled upon the Arms and Armor gallery.
Using materials like etched steel, leather, copper alloy, and textiles, an armor maker in the late 16th Century, perhaps in Brescia, Italy, created a stunning suit of armor for the warrior and his steed of the Venetian Army. The Met collection includes one of the few complete horse armors to survive from that period. There are four total suits of armor for man and equine on horse mannequins in the gallery. Two from Italy and two from Germany.
One horse suit of armor, draped across the hindquarters, neck, head, and chest is decorated with etchings that include “undulating foliage, mythological creatures, winged putti, and heroes from Biblical and Classical history such as David and Goliath and Marcus Curtius.” For those of you wondering, “winged putti” is plural for putto, when depicted in art are seen as plump male children, usually naked, with or without wings, sometimes called cherubs in other cultures. The Met estimates this Italian armor was made in 1589, right around the same time the heavily armored Venetian cavalry was losing its relevance in warfare. But the etchings on the steel are the most beautiful work of artisans. Seems a waste to have them in battle where they will soon by splattered by blood and brains of fighting armies rather then appreciated for their fine craftsmanship.
The uses of the armor ranged from battle to court tournaments. Armor had some interchangeable parts depending on if you were going to battle or going to a tourney. Once piece of jousting armor on display was used in Scharfrennen, a joust fought in an open field where two contestants would gallop straight at each other with rather sharp lances. Ouch! This one particular set of armor was used in ceremonial tournaments from 1590 across Europe until its last use in Dresden in 1936.
Saddles, Bits, And Spurs
Two of the most intricate pieces of tack I found on the armor were the spurs and the bits. One bit was a curb with the shank about six inches long with one-inch spikes coming out of the sides, about ten per side. Another long curb bit resembles a lever of some sort, in the shape of the letter Z, when you pulled on this, you could bet the horse would slow down.
And if you wanted the horse to move, a three-inch-long neck of a spur with a huge rowel of six points would get the job done. Spurs must have been a necessity since I can’t imagine being able to gently squeeze with all that armor on the soldier’s legs.
Within the gallery there were other equine hardware on display, such as an ancient iron, silver and copper stirrup from either Northern Europe or Anglo-Scandinavian around 950 CE. Triangular in shape, the section for the stirrup leather was wider than the whole stirrup. Alongside it was an iron and silver simple full-cheek snaffle bit from about 500 to 800. The bit had lovely line etches all along the full cheeks. An iron and gold prick spur sat next to the bit, with one big sharp point from 600 to 800.
Two German parade saddles from the late 14th to mid-15th Centuries were on display. One carved of white bone had a low, splayed cantle that mimics an ancient eastern European saddle. The decorations etched in the bone include Saint George and the dragon, unicorns, other mythical beasts and a pair of lovers, with German romantic prose. What struck me was the small size of the saddle. People really were smaller centuries ago. Even the armor only stood five feet tall in some suits.
Looking back on these ancient relics of horsemen, soldiers, and great warriors, I’m taken aback by how cruelly mankind treated its horses, especially during war. More like horses were nothing more than armaments to be used to defeat an advancing enemy. And while many a leader had a favorite mount that had special treatment, the majority of horses did not have such favored status. I’m glad we can see this particular history of the horse in a museum to remind us that these are beautiful living creatures that need to be preserved.
Lisa Peterson writes about horses, hounds, and history with photos posted relating to this column at lisaunleashed.com. She is the owner of Barn Girl Media, a communications consultancy company; contact her at email@example.com.