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How Armor Tells Stories: A Q&A with Pierre Terjanian

The curator of “The Last Knight” chats with us about heraldry, peacock feathers, and what makes an ideal knight

A sprawling exhibition that opened this month at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I explores the legacy of this remarkable emperor—and the significance of armor as an art form at the dawn of the Renaissance. The Met Store is celebrating this major presentation with an assortment of accessories, jewelry, and other gifts inspired by ideas, motifs, and traditions seen in the show. We’ve developed our offering in close consultation with its curator, Pierre Terjanian, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge of The Met’s Department of Arms and Armor. We recently sat down with him to discuss his exhibition, and how we have interpreted its themes.


Tell us a bit about Maximilian I.

Maximilian was a storyteller. The exhibition is about how he built power for himself, and also about the ways he chose to tell the story and the part of armor and chivalry in particular in his messaging.

How do you tell stories through armor?

Owning something that was superbly made and wearing it like any article of clothing sent an image of perfection, an image of invulnerability. Maximilian thought of himself as exemplary in his behavior and in his conduct, which meant being brave, being persistent, being fearless. And the armor was the trappings of those ideals. He wanted to be not a knight—he wanted to be an ideal knight.

In addition to that, armor was important as something he could give away, as gifting was a very important part of Renaissance culture. Armor was one of the most coveted things at the time—and he was the only one who could source the extraordinary armor that everybody wanted. And he used that leverage.


The Met Store worked with you wonderfully and successfully, looking to heraldry and crests for inspiration for our latest products. How does that fit into the picture of armor and presentation at this period of time?

Heraldry, just like armor, is a way that you can craft an identity. It represents a heritage of where you’re coming from, but it also can articulate claims to things that you think you’re entitled to, that you don’t already have.

Did Maximilian include territories in his heraldry that he aspired to?


And did he secure those territories?



So he was a pretty good negotiator.

He saw for himself and for his family opportunities to rise. In all of his negotiations, he was both seeking greater prestige and greater influence, as seen through the heraldry.

Tell us about Maximilian’s coat of arms.

A coat of arms indicates what lands are under your domination—what lands you have. On the side that’s red and white, it’s featuring Austria, which is the land that Maximilian’s coming from, and the land over which he’s going to rule. On the left side, with these oblique bars in blue and gold, he’s the Duke of Burgundy, something that he obtained through his wife, Mary of Burgundy, and a very prestigious territory over which to rule.

So no one had this coat of arms before?

Nobody had this coat of arms before. And after him, every Habsburg had this coat, so they all were Dukes of Burgundy, regardless of whether there were many brothers and sisters, and whether they ever set foot in Burgundy. It was incorporated into their identity, for hundreds of years.


So he had those kinds of ambitions?

He had those kinds of ambitions. We don’t have a master plan that he would have drafted. But it was clear at the time that through marriage, in particular, by marrying oneself or by marrying one’s children and grandchildren one could create alliances and eventually inherit or gain access to additional territories—nothing to do with war. And Maximillian was an incredible matchmaker.

That’s a skill that comes in handy.

It is indeed a legacy that his children and grandchildren got to have, as opposed to what he won by feats of arms.

Despite his love of armor.

Despite his love of armor and his endorsement of war. He loved also friendly combat, the tournament. He was all about physical activity and daring things to do. He was also an avid hunter and hunted the most difficult animals, including ibex, which are good at climbing places where humans can hardly follow. And you would have to kill them with a spear! So he took great pride in going to chase them in the mountains.

So he was athletic and virile but not necessarily a war maker.

As far as we can tell. He did not hesitate to wage war but he was not pursuing war for its own sake.

Tournament Tapestry of Frederick the Wise, Prince Elector of Saxony. South Netherlandish, probably Brussels. Silk, silver and gold threads; 16 ft. 3 11/16 in. × 18 ft. 11 15/16 in.; ca. 1490. Musée de Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, France


You taught us about the significance of the peacock feather, which is something that The Met Store features in many different contexts and products. What did the motif signify at this era?

A coat of arms is essentially a shield that contains identifiers that allow you to tell somebody or a family apart from another. On top of the shield, it’s customary to represent the helmet that would have been worn in warfare or in a tournament. As an identifier in combat, the helmet sometimes sported plumage or other devices. And the family from which Maximillian came, the Habsburgs, traditionally had plumes of peacock feathers adorning their helmets. So that complements the shield and positions him as a member of the distinguished family.

And something you could easily make out among other crests.

The peacock feathers were exotic, expensive. And they may have been unique to the house of Habsburg. I’m not aware of many coats of arms that have these particular feathers.

 Because peacocks are not native to the Alps.

No, they’re not native to the Alps! I could do more research to know exactly when that came about.

Pair of Gauntlets of Maximilian I. Attributed to Lorenz Helmschmid (German, ca. 1445–1516). Steel, ca. 1490. Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, Real Armería


I’ll take your word for it. Zooming out a bit: Who do you hope comes to the exhibition and what do you broadly hope that people take away from it?

In the age of social media, so many of us have an account and share information about ourselves. Many of us think about what it is that we want to say and what we have done that we think is relevant to the world. We might go to the exhibition to see what Maximilian wanted to share about himself and why he chose to say certain things about himself.

This is essentially an exhibition about the power of communication in a different age and the power of identity to attract support, to build ties with others. Maximilian needed others to support him. In that sense, I think is a hugely relevant story about how you build power not by forcing people to do things for you but by actually making them want to believe in your project and to assist you. This is an area in which he was extremely successful.


Discover more items inspired by The Last Knight and other exhibitions at store.metmuseum.org.

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