Cuirasses and casques, burgonets and bevors, gauntlets and greaves: The words used to describe the protective pieces warriors have worn into battle over the centuries summon distant worlds. And indeed, it is the mission of The Met’s Department of Arms and Armor to showcase superb examples of the armorer’s and swordsmith’s art over thousands of years, and across cultures. The galleries illustrate that pieces that are (perforce) made to be durable can also reach the highest levels of aesthetic achievement.
The Museum’s department was established in 1912 by founding curator Dr. Bashford Dean (1867–1928), a polymath scholar whose knowledge of medieval armor was matched by his accomplishments in ichthyology, the study of fish. (Reflecting his two passions, Dean held dual appointments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.) The Museum’s holdings grew quickly, with major gifts from collectors William H. Riggs, Jean Jacques Reubell, J. Pierpont Morgan (the only piece of armor Morgan owned, a magnificent helmet by Milanese armorer Filippo Negroli, is a highlight of The Met collection), and the estate of Dr. Dean himself.
The Museum’s holdings include arms and armor that belonged to Henry VIII of England, Henry II of France, and other members of the European aristocracy—yet the collection spans continents as well. With some 3,000 objects from Iran, Turkey, India, Japan, Tibet, and other cultures in its collection, the department exhibits swords, chain mail, helmets, and other dazzling and deadly pieces. (There’s even an “elephant sword” on display, a sort of bayonet designed to attach to the beast’s tusk.) These beautiful, delicately wrought works illuminate how arms and armor have been a mark of both conquest and courtly refinement around the world for millennia.
The arms and armor galleries are perennially popular with Museum visitors, and medievalists, military historians, fans of fantasy fiction (especially anything by George R. R. Martin), imagination-loving children, and many, many others will find something to love here. Not least, modern artisans take inspiration from the astonishing techniques on display—with many creating their own contemporary pieces based on these historic accouterments of battle and pageantry.