Maximilian armor (possibly Innsbruck, Austria, c. 1510-20).Photo used by permission of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires disintegrated in the wake of World War One (1914-1918). 

The British Empire and the French Republic were broke, and economic-social conditions worldwide were in disarray.  Americans of means, such as George Harding and William Randolph Hearst, availed themselves of this situation and purchased armor at bargain-basement prices from noble estates. 

Possibly motivated by the intrinsic aesthetic content of Medieval and Renaissance armor, boyhood memories of novels by Sir Walter Scott, plain curiosity or a desire to relive the past in their castle-like homes, men like Harding and Hearst collected the stuff by the truckload.

Much of the Hearst Collection is dispersed, but the Harding Collection in its entirety is at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Acquired from the Harding estate in the early 1980s and formerly installed in Gunsaulus Hall, a select number of pieces are now on display in Galleries 235 and 236.  At some future date the entire collection will be reassembled, but the pieces already on display are encompassing and exquisite. Among the A.I.C.’s many mind-boggling works of art, its armor is a must-see.

Neil’s MFA thesis was called “Medieval Armour and Its Relationship to Welded Steel Sculpture,” so investigating the Harding collection was essentially a no-brainer for him. For Alan, it was terra incognita, but he got into it after initial bafflement. 

While Neil was grooving on a mounted combatant in Maximilian armor (possibly Innsbruck, Austria, c. 1510-20), Alan was fascinated by a pikeman’s half armor (1625-30) from Greenwich, England. About a footman’s half armor (1600) made in Milan, Italy, the Getaway Guys were of different opinions. Alan thought it gaudy, and Neil thought it elegant.

The armor era was short-lived.  Between c. 1470 and c. 1600, workshops in England, France, Austria, Italy and Spain produced field, jousting and parade armor in abundance. Field and jousting pieces were essentially utilitarian, while parade pieces were fancy and useless in battle and jousting. All were militaristic in concept.

As a kid making New York department store rounds (Macy’s, Gimbel’s and Wanamaker’s), Neil, with his mother, discovered that Gimbel’s had elements of the Hearst collection for sale. So Neil thought all department stores had armor for sale. Why a department store and not an auction house, nobody seems to remember.

Conceived for protection or self-aggrandizement, armor is now recognized as an art form. Its finely wrought steel in intricate patterns conforming to the human body and its ability to mimic human flexibility are remarkable, and despite its practical function (whether field, jousting or parade), armorers subconsciously fabricated movable works of sculpture. 

Numerous misconceptions remain about the demise of armor. With the ex-ception of jousting armor, it was not heavy and cumbersome. It was surprisingly lightweight and flexible. And despite its light weight, the stuff was tough enough to withstand crossbow bolts and early firearms. However, it was expensive. Its costliness and the development of more powerful firearms did it in.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago possess the best armor collections this side
of the Atlantic. 

Is it art? Along with ancient-to-modern jewelry, couture fashions and indigenous textiles, armor is art to be worn, regardless of its initial purpose.  In addition to armor’s sculptural content, its etched, gilded or painted surfaces are further evidence of artistic endeavor.

Accompanied by curator Martha Wolff and collection manager Jane Neet, the Getaway Guys had a blast.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain
a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.